First of all, let me begin by telling you this is a spectacular year for bay scallops. They are plentiful, super sweet, and best of all, not horribly expensive. Scallop yield over the last 25 years has been erratic, unpredictable, and unreliable. But this year, locavores can rejoice!
The bay scallop is a marine bivalve mollusk of the family Pectinidae. The shell is marked by radiating ribs and concentric growth rings. The entire scallop is edible, but it is the marshmallow shaped adductor muscle that hinges the two shells, called the “nut,” that is commonly eaten in this country. In Europe and Asia, the scallop is sold whole, as the coral roe is highly prized as well.
Most but not all scallops are hermaphrodites, equipped with both an orange roe and a whitish testis. They have 40 bright blue eyes with a lens and a retina that can detect light and motion. They do not crawl or burrow, so do not have a large “foot.” They use the adductor muscle to open and close their shell to propel them through the water. Some scallops roam around this way, some remain anchored by a bysuss to a solid object.
The small, soft bay scallop lives in bays and estuaries from New England to the Gulf of Mexico. The scallops we can buy this time of year come from the Peconic Bay and Nantucket.
Scallops are “born” during the summer and spend their first year growing. Then in the summer of their second year, they spawn. They are harvested in the fall and winter after they’ve spawned and reached the end of their life cycle. Since they’re going to die anyway, there’s no harm in taking them.
Once upon a time, bay scallops were so plentiful, they would wash up on the beach after a rough storm. They have been relatively scarce after an algae bloom (brown tide) in 1985. This caused a reduction in sea grasses, where the bay scallop spat like to attach themselves. Coastal development and nutrient runoff also contributed to the depletion of the scallop population. Another theory is that the overfishing of sharks, which feed on rays, which in turn feed on scallops has caused their scarcity.
You should always buy scallops from a reliable source, but scallops are considered one of the safest shellfish to eat raw. Most of the danger in eating raw shellfish stems from the fact that they filter large amounts of seawater to obtain nutrients. Bacteria, viruses, and toxins tend to accumulate in this filtration apparatus. The filtration apparatus in scallops, however, is discarded and only the adductor muscle, where few toxins accumulate, is eaten.
The fresher the scallop, the more translucent it will be. Dragged scallops may be gray and are often soaked in a chemical solution to preserve them. Unfortunately, these “wet” scallops will be flabby and opaque and shed a great deal of excess water when you try to pan sear them. Dry packed scallops are best.
Scallops that grow in a fast water current will have firmer flesh and very little grit, those from areas with little water movement may be softer and grainy. Avoid scallops that are slippery or spongy or have an unpleasant smell. Duh.
You can keep shucked scallops for one or two days refrigerated and they freeze well. If you are lucky enough to find live scallops in the shell, be sure to use them within a day because they die quickly once out of the water. Store them in a bowl covered with a wet towel in the refrigerator.
Besides being one of our finest seasonal treats, scallops are very high in tryptophan, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. But I have often wondered what gives them their marvelous sweet flavor. According to arold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” it is from their large amounts of the amino acids glycine and glycogen, a portion of which is converted by enzymes into glucose. When sautéed, scallops develop a rich, brown crust; this is because of their amino acids and sugars undergoing what is called the Maillard reaction.
In the late 1800s, the farmers and fishermen of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay were using the plentiful scallops to feed their pigs. It was believed this improved the flavor of pork. There was one local captain named Jim Brashire whom most considered a depraved man, for he consumed frogs, wild mushrooms, and dogfish tails. He was the first among his fellow fishermen to taste the bay scallop. I’d like to believe he told the others not to bother trying them, took a bushel home for his family, and fried them up with some of his foraged wild mushrooms.
From pig slop to jewel of the bay, let us give thanks for this plentiful season of sweet little bay scallops.