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Scallops: Mollusks with Muscle

By Kelly Snowden and Erin Hollingsworth
January 2007

Scallops have long been a staple of New England’s notoriously long winters, which often spill over into the first month of spring. Their subtle sweetness brightens winter menus when most produce is not at its seasonal peak.

Most scallops are harvested through the ecologically unfortunate dredging of the seabed; however, many are obtained through scuba diving, a more expensive method first popularized in Great Britain. This method of diving for individual scallops leaves the seabed intact and insures that the shells remain unflawed, but low yields equal high costs. » more


Cold Poached Nantucket Scallops with Baby Fennel Confit Roasted Baby Beet, Quinoa, Mache, Blood Orange Vinaigrette
Chef Keith Pooler of Harvest

» Bay Scallops with Pear Brown Butter, Pancetta, Celeriac and Baby Brussel Sprouts
Chef Greg Reeves of B&G Oysters

» Diver Scallops with Red Kuri Squash, Baby Blue Kale, Toasted Chestnuts and Sage
Chef Greg Reeves of B&G Oysters

» Scallops with Macomber Turnip Puree, Brussels Sprouts and Truffle Vinaigrette
Chef Tom Fosnot of blu

Dredged or diver, two types of scallops are commonly served in the United States, bay scallops and sea scallops. Bay scallops are tinier and sweeter than their sea cousins, which makes them especially prized among chefs and diners, but sea scallops can replace bay scallops in most recipes and have merits of their own. While all scallops make suitable carpaccio, sea scallops excel in this preparation, especially with light, slightly sweet sauces, as their larger size affords a more satisfying carpaccio surface area, and brinier, although still sweet, flavor marries well with a hint of additional honey, sugar or fruit juice.

Bay scallop prices have always been high because their harvest is so laborious, but last winter the succulent Nantucket bay scallop, which has long been over-harvested, shot up to prohibitive costs. They were off the menu in many restaurants, but people still went looking for them.

“I’ve done them year after year,” said Chef Keith Pooler of Harvest in Boston. “This is the second year we didn’t do them, because prices have gone through the roof, but a few people still asked for them. We offered them for New Year’s and maybe one or two other special occasions.” He explained that bay scallops have shot from a barely reasonable $22 last year to a ridiculous $26 this year. A seller’s market dominated by two local purveyors doesn’t help.

Chef Pooler grew up in the Northeast, and many of his cousins were scallop fishermen. He often ate at New England fish shacks, ordering fried fisherman platters, where he developed a taste for fresh, simply prepared scallops.

“I remember broiled ones with garlic and butter,” Chef Pooler said. “We used to get huge ones, larger than the ones I see today. They ate like a meal in themselves. That’s how big they were.” Sea scallops are measured according to how many comprise a pound -- U12 means there are 12 scallops to a pound. Today Pooler’s serving his crowd-pleasing U10 sea scallops with an olive oil emulsion, celery root puree and baby shitake mushrooms.

What we refer to as a “scallop,” at least on the plate, is the adductor muscle of the actual scallop organism, but scallops hold more than muscle. When you buy a scallop whole you have more options as the coral, or roe, is also delicious. Furthermore, because they’re more expensive to buy whole, you offset some of the additional cost when you use the entire scallop. Dried and served over ceviche or mixed with butter to thicken sauces, the now prevalent culinary philosophy of using the whole animal extends to Phylum Mollusca.

Unlike many bivalve mollusks, scallops must move around in water to live, so they die quickly once caught. To ensure a fresh catch, many restaurants buy “day boat” scallops. This indicates that the boat has only been out at sea for 24 hours, not a number of days, so that all the catch is guaranteed to be relatively fresh. Fresh scallops should have a slightly sweet and briny smell with no sourness.

There are two ways to buy fresh scallops -- dry and wet. The wet ones have been treated with a chemical phosphate, turning them a stark white. This gives them a longer shelf life, but it takes away flavor and nutrients. Dry scallops, on the other hand, are ideal, as they have no water or chemicals added. They have a superior taste and texture and should be creamy or pink in color.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of pink scallops,” Chef Pooler said. “They think they aren’t quite right, but actually they are of high quality. It means the scallops have had a rich diet and have taken on the characteristics of what they ate and are sweeter.”

Pink, white or beige, the trick in preparing scallops is to cook them just right. A clear change in color and texture takes place as the scallop is cooked. It becomes opaque and almost white, while the texture hardens slightly so it is just firm to the touch. “If you are searing them, you want that nice, hard sear, with that sweetness from the sugars,” Chef Pooler says. It’s that bit of sweetness, hint of brine and luscious texture that make scallops a worthwhile addition to any menu.

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