It may seem strange, since there’s hardly an upscale restaurant around town or, for that matter, anywhere in the South that doesn’t have at least one scallop dish on its menu, but there was a time when this luscious bivalve was rarely, if ever, seen on Southern tables.
Take a dip into old Southern cookbooks dating from the middle of the last century and earlier, and you’ll find that these sweet morsels are rarely, if ever, even mentioned.
Luckily, that was a long time ago.
Ever since the 1950s, scallops have been popular all over America and are now common throughout our region.
You may have long enjoyed them without realizing that what we know as scallops are just one part of the animal: the abductor muscle that operates its shell. Few of us ever see more than that, since scallops are generally shucked and cleaned on the boat as they’re harvested. The rest of the body and the shell go overboard.
There are dozens of varieties, but locally, they’re mostly sold under just two generic names: “bay” and “sea” scallops.
Both come from the sea, but bay scallops are harvested from shallow waters near the shore and sea scallops, from deep, cold waters.
Like oysters, bay scallops are actually seasonal from October until spring. Their shells are only 3-inches (or less) across, and their abductor muscles are correspondingly small — rarely more than ½-inch across and about ¾ to 1 inch thick. Their color is a creamy beige that may be tinged pale pink or orange.
Sea scallops, since they’re harvested from deeper, colder waters, have no season and are gathered year-round. They also come from much larger animals whose shells can be up to a foot across. They’re not stark white but are paler than bay scallops.
When shopping for sea scallops, you may encounter a “U” number. It’s a measuring unit that’s the count per pound. For example, U-10s, the showy, jumbo scallops that many restaurants use, are roughly 10 to the pound. Most sea scallops in regular markets are U-20 or smaller.
There are two other terms you might encounter. “Dry-packed” and “day boat.” Both refer to scallops that haven’t been wet-packed, that is, stored in a solution of water and a preservative.
Just like large, commercial shrimpers, fishermen who harvest deep sea scallops may stay at sea for up to 10 days at a time. After scallops are shucked, their color tends to darken and they also lose moisture, so most of the catch is stored in a water-based preserving solution, both to hold their color and flavor and to keep them moist.
“Dry-packed” means they’ve not been stored in this preserving solution and are usually harvested by day boats, that is, boats that return to harbor daily, and use only cold storage to hold the scallops. “Day boat scallops” is just a picturesque way of saying they’re dry-packed and haven’t been on the boat for more than a few hours.
Though wholesalers usually differentiate between wet and dry packed scallops, retailers aren’t required to do so. However, if they’re not labeled, a sure give-away that they’re wet-packed is that they’ll be a flat, opaque white.
They’ll still work for anything but pan-searing or sautéing, since wet-packed scallops sweat and shed their juices when exposed to heat, and therefore won’t brown but will only steam in those juices.
You can get partly around that by rinsing the scallops and then thoroughly drying them, but even with that precaution they may still weep. So, if you’re not sure and you plan to pan-sear or sauté them, always ask.
Many supermarket seafood counters sell previously frozen scallops (usually, they’re labeled as such). They can still be quite good, but a lot will depend on how they were handled. You should cook all scallops as soon as possible on the day that you buy them, but that’s especially true for scallops that may have been previously frozen and thawed.
What you are not likely to encounter in the market is skate or shark meat that has been stamped out to imitate scallops. For one thing, it would be more trouble than it would be worth.
No one is sure how that urban legend began, but it’s still getting circulated.
The one big drawback to scallops is that they have a distinctive aroma that gets stronger the longer they’re kept, and when they’re cooked, that aroma does tend to permeate and linger—delicious on the day, less so a day or two later. So, if you have a grill and a delicate constitution, you might want to cook them outdoors.
Storing and preparing scallops for cooking
Unless you are lucky enough to be in a large urban area or find an Asian fish market where the scallops are still alive in their shells, “fresh” is relative, so store them in the refrigerator on ice and use them the day you buy them.
To prepare them for cooking, you’ll find a small, separate muscle on one side, almost like a tendon. Though it’s pliable and soft when raw, it toughens and gets chewy once cooked, so pull it off and discard it.
If you’re sure the scallops are dry packed, simply dry them with paper towels. If you’re not, or know for certain they’re wet-packed, drain and rinse them well under cold running water, then thoroughly dry them. They might still weep when heated, but it won’t be as bad.
Thin Spaghetti with Scallops
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” this is one of the simplest and best of all seafood pasta sauces. Originally devised for the tiny canestrelli scallops of Italy, it adapts well to our larger bay scallops. If you don’t find those, you can also make this with sea scallops, but slice them in half and then cut each half into 4-5 pieces. Serves 6.
• 1 pound bay scallops
• ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
• 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley
• Chopped hot red chili pepper or hot pepper flakes, to taste
• 1 pound thin spaghetti, vermicelli, angel hair, or spaghetti
• ½ cup dry bread crumbs, lightly toasted in a skillet
1. Wash scallops in cold water, dry well with paper towels, and cut at least into halves or quarters, depending on size. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in heavy-bottomed 6-8 quart pot.
2. Put oil and garlic in pan over medium heat and cook, stirring, until garlic is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes. Add parsley and hot pepper to taste, stir, and add scallops and 1-2 pinches salt. Raise heat to high and sauté, stirring, until scallops lose shine and turn flat white, about 1½ minutes. Do not overcook. Taste and correct salt and hot pepper.
3. If scallops have shed liquid, remove them with slotted spoon and boil until liquid is thick and almost evaporated. Turn off heat, return scallops to pan, and stir to coat.
4. When water is boiling, stir in small handful of salt and pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using package suggested cooking time as rough guide. Drain and immediately toss with sauce, add crumbs, and toss again. Serve at once.
Scallops Diane (Pasta with Scallops and Mushrooms)
Like Shrimp Diane, which is usually made in no more than two servings at once, there’s something in the character of this dish that is too intimate for sharing with more than one person. Serves 2.
• ½ pound bay scallops, preferably dry-packed
• 4-6 tablespoons best quality butter, cut into small pieces, divided
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• ½ pound small brown (cremini or “baby bella” mushrooms), wiped clean and thickly sliced
• 6 small, thin scallions or spring onions, thinly sliced, white and greens separated
• 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• ½ cup dry white wine
• 1 lemon, halved
• 6 ounces fresh egg pasta cut into tagliatelle, fettuccine, or linguine
1. Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil. Meanwhile, drain scallops in wire mesh sieve and pat dry. Put aside.
2. Warm 2 tablespoons of butter with olive oil in large, heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When sizzling, add mushrooms and sauté, tossing constantly, until beginning to color on edges, about 2-3 minutes. Add white and pale, thick green parts of scallions and toss until hot through and translucent, then add garlic and thyme. Continue tossing until garlic is fragrant but not colored. Add scallops and toss until no longer translucent.
3. Season generously with pepper and pour in wine. Cook until wine is evaporated and juices are somewhat thickened, about 2 minutes longer. Squeeze in juice of one half of lemon and toss well. Taste and adjust lemon juice.
4. Add small handful salt to boiling water and stir in pasta. Cook until al dente — about 2-4 minutes for fresh pasta, 6-12 minutes for dried pasta. When pasta is almost done, gently reheat sauce and turn off heat. Add thinly sliced onion greens and swirl in enough butter to give it consistency of thick cream. When pasta is ready, drain and immediately add to pan with sauce. Toss well, taste and adjust salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and toss again. Serve at once.
Pan-Seared Sea Scallops
These are perfectly delicious served as-is straight from the pan, with lemon wedges on the side, but they’re also lovely taken up a notch with the optional butter sauce included here. You must have dry-pack scallops for this dish. Serves 4-6.
For the Scallops:
• 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
• 24 extra-large dry-packed sea scallops
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 2 lemons cut into wedges
For the Optional Butter Sauce:
• ½ cup dry white wine
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter cut into small cubes
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons chopped basil, oregano, parsley (or a mixture)
1. Heat well-seasoned cast iron pan over medium hot fire on grill (preferably over hardwood coals) or on range. Add 2 tablespoons oil and let get almost smoking hot.
2. Wipe scallops dry and add enough to fill pan without crowding. Sear until browned on bottom, about 2 minutes, and turn. If scallops are sticking, wait 20-30 seconds longer and test. They release from pan when sufficiently browned. Cook 1-2 minutes longer, until browned on second side and done to your taste. Repeat with remaining scallops. If serving without sauce, season lightly with salt and pepper and serve with lemon wedges.
3. To make the optional butter sauce: after scallops are all cooked, return pan to heat and add wine, stirring and scraping to loosen browned glaze on pan. Bring to boil and boil until reduced by half. Remove pan from heat and let cool slightly.
4. With flat whisk, begin whisking in butter in bits. When butter almost dissolved into sauce, return pan to low heat and continue whisking in butter in bits until all is incorporated. Sauce should be consistency of heavy cream. If sauce begins to “oil” (butter begins to separate), remove from heat and add several pieces cold butter at once.
5. When butter is incorporated, whisk in lemon juice and herbs and immediately pour into warm serving bowl. Serve at once: butter sauce won’t hold.
Julia Child’s Coquilles St. Jacques à la Parisienne
(Scallops Gratinéed with Mushrooms and Wine Sauce)
When I did a popular series of “Dinner with Julia” cooking classes several years ago, I taught this with some trepidation: the scallops were poached for five minutes, then sliced and cooked again. How could that possibly be good, I thought? Silly me: Mrs. Child knew what she was doing. Adapted from her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1.” Serves 6.
• 1 cup dry white wine or ¾ cup dry white vermouth
• Salt and whole white pepper in a mill
• ½ bay leaf
• 2 tablespoons minced shallots
• 1 pound scallops, washed and trimmed
• ½ pound sliced fresh white mushrooms
• 4½ tablespoons butter, divided, plus more for greasing the shells
• 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• ¾ cup whole milk, warmed or at room temperature
• 2 egg yolks
• ½ cup heavy cream, plus more as needed
• Lemon juice
• 6 tablespoons grated Gruyere
1. Put wine, ½ teaspoon salt, a small pinch white pepper, bay leaf, and shallots in saucepan that will hold scallops and mushrooms. Bring to simmer over medium heat and simmer 5 minutes.
2. Add scallops and mushrooms and enough water to cover. Bring to simmer, cover, and reduce heat. Simmer 5 minutes. Remove scallops and mushrooms with slotted spoon, raise heat, and quickly boil cooking liquid down to 1 cup. Transfer to measuring cup or bowl and wipe out pan.
3. Add 3 tablespoons butter to pan and melt over medium heat. Whisk in flour and let simmer until foaming and frothy for 2 minutes but do not let color. Remove pan from heat and whisk in hot liquid and then milk. Bring to boil and boil 1 minute. It will be quite thick. In heatproof bowl, beat together egg yolks and cream. Whisk in few dribbles of sauce and then slowly whisk in remaining sauce in steady stream. Pour back into saucepan and bring back to boil, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute, thinning with cream if necessary until it coats back of spoon. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Strain sauce through fine wire mesh strainer.
4. Slice scallops crosswise 1/8-inch thick. Reserving 1/3 of sauce, fold scallops and mushrooms into remainder. Butter 6 scallop shells and divide scallop and mushrooms among them. Spoon remaining sauce over, top with cheese and dot with butter. Can be made ahead and refrigerated.
5. Thirty minutes before serving, position rack 9 inches below heat source and preheat broiler 15 minutes. Broil until heated through can golden brown on top. Serve immediately.