How to Make Italian Seafood Salad (Insalata di Frutti di Mare)

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Vicky Wasik

It wasn't until very recently that the similarity between Peruvian ceviche and Italian seafood salad struck me. Peruvian ceviche: chunks of seafood—some raw, like fish, and some cooked, like shrimp—marinated in lime juice with cilantro and onion, along with the heat of fresh chili peppers. Italian seafood salad: chunks of seafood, all cooked and tossed in a dressing of lemon juice with olive oil, parsley, and onion, along with a subtle heat from chilies or black pepper. It's remarkable, actually, just how much they have in common. I sit at my computer now, fingers paused, pondering whether they share a historic link, or if it's just a case of culinary multiple independent discovery.

No matter. For now, I'll have to put that question aside, because the goal before me is not to trace their respective lineages but to figure out how to make the best damn Italian seafood salad imaginable. I'll tell you right away, though: I'm going to steal an idea from ceviche to get there.

Seafood salad is, at its heart, incredibly simple. The seafood should be fresh and tender, the dressing bright and flavorful. It should be served chilled. That's it, really. So, how do we make it?

Let's start with what I'm putting in my seafood salad, since there are lots of choices. Mine includes mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid. Many versions also have octopus, clams, and conch,* but I've left those out—not because I don't love them, but just to limit my selection to easy-to-find options (plus, adding mussels and clams seemed redundant).

That's pronounced conk, by the way...the contch pronunciation some people use is a real bugaboo of mine. One more small aside: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the name for conch was scungilli. According to my copy of Garzanti, a good Italian dictionary, "scungilli" is not a word that would be recognized by most speakers of standard Italian; best I've been able to determine, it's the Italian-American version of sconciglio, which is the Neapolitan word for conchiglia, which is itself the standard Italian word for "shellfish." If any native Italian speakers out there can shed more light on these words, I'd appreciate it, since a clear explanation has eluded me for years.

The next question, then, is how to cook them. Equally important is in what sequence, and that's where the logistical beauty of this method emerges. Here's what we know:

  • Mussels are easy to cook. Take a look at our guide to cooking mussels for more info, but the important thing to know here is that they cook quickly in an intense cloud of steam, dumping their own flavorful juices into the pot as they do so.
  • Shrimp, as we know from our recipes for shrimp salad and shrimp cocktail, are best poached by starting them in cool water and bringing them up to 170°F, which guarantees plump, tender flesh that's not tight or mushy from overcooking. Marinating them first with baking soda and salt, an old Chinese trick, gives them an impressive juicy snap.
  • Squid, in an application like this, needs to be cooked quickly, just enough to remove it from its raw state, but not so much that its muscle fibers contract and toughen. (Eventually, if you cook it long enough, its ample collagen will soften into gelatin, becoming tender again, but anything in between is rubbery.) It just so happens that squid's quick-cooking sweet spot is similar to shrimp's.
  • Scallops, in the most general sense, are best raw or barely cooked. Even when seared, the goal is to brown the exterior well while leaving the rest as rare as possible. Also: Always buy dry-packed scallops, which are infinitely sweeter and more flavorful than brined, wet-packed ones.

So, given all this, I came up with a plan of attack:

The Scallops

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I start by cutting the scallops into cubes, tossing them with ample lemon juice, and setting them in the fridge to chill—this is the ceviche move. The plan here is not to cook them, but to cure them, exactly like in a ceviche. It'll be just enough to strip away some of their pure rawness, while maintaining as much of their tenderness as possible.

The Mussels

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Meanwhile, I brown some garlic in oil in a saucepan, infusing the oil with flavor. Then I add a small amount of water to the pot, bring it to a boil, toss the mussels in, and cover. They're done in just a couple of minutes, at which point I use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a bowl to cool.

I pluck most of the mussels from their shells, saving only a handful in the shell for presentation (like I did with clams for my spaghetti alle vongole), then chill them.

The Shrimp and Squid

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Now I have some rich, garlicky mussel broth in the pot. I top it up with more cold water, add some lemon juice for acidity and flavor, along with peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves, also for flavor. Voilà! I have a tasty poaching medium for the rest of my seafood. And, because I've added cold water, I've reset the temperature, meaning I can cook the shrimp and squid using that cold-start method.

There's not even a reason to separate the shrimp and squid: They can both go into the tepid poaching medium at the same time, and gently be brought up to 170°F, at which point they'll be perfectly plump and tender throughout. Before cooking the shrimp, I've first marinated them with baking soda and salt for that snappy texture I mentioned above. (I tried that treatment on the squid, too, and it made no difference, so skip it.)

As soon as the water hits 170°F, I transfer the shrimp and squid to a large bowl or rimmed baking sheet to chill.

Finishing the Salad

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While all the seafood is cooling, I whip up the dressing, a simple blend of minced parsley, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. I toss it all with the chilled seafood, adding cayenne pepper for heat (fresh minced chilies would work, too) and thinly sliced celery and fennel for flavor and crunch. I also sprinkle in a little ground coriander seed; I just love it so much with seafood.

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The salad is ready to rock as is, but I can tell you from experience that it gets even better the next day, as the seafood marinates and the flavors meld. That's one way in which it's not at all like ceviche, which peaks about 15 minutes after it's made and goes downhill from there. Though I challenge you not to eat all of it right away, by yourself, before anyone even finds out you've made it.

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