Did you know that scallops swim in schools? That they’re hermaphroditic depending on the need? Ever consider that scallop you’re chewing could be eighteen years old? Scallops are caught, as opposed to being collected like clams and oyster, because they’re mobile creatures that swim around. The traditional method has been to scoop them up in dredges, but that destructive method of fishing is slowly falling out of favor, and scallops caught by divers are the most desirable. Free range scallops? Other bivalves are able to hold their shells tightly closed for protection both in or out of the water, which would be pretty necessary if you happened to live in the inter tidal zone and were left high and dry every seven hours or so. Since scallops are free swimming, they don’t have this defensive mechanism. They do have over a hundred eyes, complete with lens and retina, and react quickly to external movement or changes in light, usually by swimming away. None of this hanging about on a barnacle-encrusted piling for them, thank-you-very-much.
All this activity is important to us because the engine driving all of this is the adductor muscle, which is what we westerners are generally referring to when we talk about eating scallops. All bivalves have this one, but since most of them only use it for keeping themselves shut it’s small and underdeveloped. Since scallops work theirs out, literally flapping their shells to jet around, it’s proportionally larger. Good for those of us that like to eat ’em.
There are two general types of scallops found on the market: bay, and the larger ones sold as “sea” scallops. The former are quite small (think bay shrimp) and the latter are generally much larger, up to 2 ounces ounces once cleaned. The market on both coasts typically consists of a large deep water species named Placopecten magellanicus caught from between Newfoundland and North Carolina. In Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest fish markets another species, Patinopecten caurinus, is often available. It’s larger than it’s eastern cousin, is caught seasonally in much smaller quantities and costs more. Aside from size and it’s exotic locale, one reason for the higher cost of Alaskan scallops is that they generally are not treated (soaked) with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), in order to keep the moisture content high during processing and shipping. Unscrupulous processors have also used these food-grade additives to increase the water-weight of seafood so that they get more money for their catch when they sell it by the pound at the dock. If you’ve ever purchased fresh frozen seafood (almost all Alaskan scallops are flash-frozen on the fishing boats), and found the container filled with a white cloudy liquid after thawing, this is STP. Sometimes the northern scallops are sold under a chemical free label. Look for scallops that are off-white or even slightly brown or tan – brilliantly white ones are probably treated with something.
So what to do with these small and delicate perfectly round, fat free pieces of meat? I like to treat them like miniature tenderloins. They have such a great texture and flavor that they don’t need much help – save the bay scallops for heavy sauces or burying in a mound of pasta. Sear the big ones to medium or medium rare and serve with a light sauce.
4-5 larger scallops
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 tbs chopped fresh parsley
2 tbs butter
salt and pepper
Heat your saute pan to medium high with a bit of butter and sear the scallops quickly for perhaps 90 seconds on a side. If you are using non-stick cookware you will not get the nice browning effect, so don’t overcook them. Some cooks like to toss them with a bit of flour prior to searing. Scallops, like most meat, will release a lot of moisture when subjected to intense heat. All of this liquid released in a hot pan full of scallops will poach them, and you will not get the outside brown and a bit crusty. Searing them in small batches or in a large pan will alleviate this. Remove the cooked scallops and set aside. Turn the heat down to medium and add a bit of minced garlic. When it browns and starts to smell nutty, deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce by half. Remove from heat and salt and pepper to your liking. Add the parsley (or even cilantro), and swirl in the butter. I like to pool the sauce on a plate, set the scallops on top of it, and serve with good crusty bread for soaking it up.