Once upon a time, if your waiter said the fish was fresh today, that was enough. Now it has to be “line-caught” or perhaps escorted to shore by a flotilla of rowboats. The same goes for scallops. Today, the operative words for fresh scallops are “day boat” and “diver” with diver scallops being the ne plus ultra of scallops, at least as far as I’m concerned. And I’m not alone.
The jumbo diver scallops from Browne Trading Company, a seafood purveyor in Portland, Maine, grace the tables of some of America’s finest restaurants. “The diver scallops we get from them are so fresh, they’re still moving,” says Alex Lee, chef de cuisine of Daniel, in New York. “They’re firm and hold their juices in when cooked. Others leave a lot of water.” Daniel’s winter menu featured a hearty dish of roasted diver scallops with, lentils, root vegetables, porcini mushrooms and country bacon. Lee has also served them with calf’s feet and hot and sweet peppers in parslied clam broth.
There are three main varieties of scallops: sea (diver scallops are in this category), bay and calico. Sea scallops are most widely available, with the boldest, briniest flavor. They’re harvested in the North Atlantic from Virginia to Canada. Boats go out for days at a time and bring back their catch, which is then frozen or sold as fresh. (Sometimes it is frozen, defrosted, and still sold as “fresh”.) To maintain shelf life, these scallops are sometimes soaked in a tripolyphosphate solution. If the scallops in your market have a milky white liquid around them, chances are they have been treated this way. Such scallops are often called “wet” scallops. Untreated or “dry” scallops have more of an off-white color.
Alaskan scallops, called Weathervanes, comprise a small percentage of the sea scallops caught in American waters. These are frozen at sea (usually in five-pound blocks), within four hours of being caught. “Most North Atlantic scallops aren’t frozen for at least a couple of days after being caught. When they are thawed, they won’t last as long as Alaskan scallops,” says Bob Simon general manager of Nova Fisheries, in Seattle.
“Day boat” scallops, which are brought to market on the day they’re caught, are an improvement, but for connoisseurs even these have shortcomings. “The dragging from boats beats up the scallops,” says Rod Mitchell, owner of Browne Trading Company. (Such scallops are collected in huge nets, banging against each other and whatever else winds up in the net, resulting in cracked shells and exposed meat that can be damaged.) Mitchell prefers diver scallops, which, as the name implies, are harvested by individual divers who scour shallow waters off the coast of Maine. “I think the best come from water 15 to 25 feet deep. This allows more sunlight for plankton, which means better food for the scallops,” Mitchell says. “But the main thing is that there is no stress to them when they’re harvested by divers.” Not surprisingly, these hand-harvested scallops command top dollar, up to $25 a pound for jumbos (about eight to a pound).
While sea scallops come from the open sea, bay scallops grow much closer to shore. They’re smaller—about the size of a pretzel nugget—with a sweeter, more delicate flavor. Bay scallops are only available from roughly December 1 to April 15 (versus all year long for sea scallops, though colder months are best). There are also fewer places where they can be harvested. Because of their rarity, bay scallops are often more esteemed than sea scallops. Nantucket bay scallops are the premier variety in this category.
Huge quantities of cultured bay scallops from China, the same species as Nantucket bays, have flooded the market in recent years. Taylor Cultured Seafood in Fairhaven, Mass. is the only significant American scallop farm, and its production is still limited. Taylor’s scallops are sold live in shells. (Scallop shells never close completely, unlike clams, so they are prone to spoilage if not shucked immediately after harvest.)
Calico scallops are inexpensive scallops not much bigger than a pencil eraser from warmer Atlantic and Gulf waters. Unscrupulous dealers may substitute larger ones for bay scallops. Because they overcook easily and don’t have much flavor, calicos rarely merit the attention of serious scallop eaters.
I tasted a variety of sea scallops and bay scallops from various locations, both fresh and frozen. The king of the sea scallops were the Maine diver scallops from Browne Trading Company. These 2-ounce behemoths (more than twice the size of the next largest scallop) were rich and meaty with a mouthfilling flavor that just blew away the competition. Far back in second position were day boat scallops from off the coast of Massachusetts, purchased from Citarella, the premium fish market on Manhattan’s upper West Side. These smaller, more irregular scallops had fine seafood flavor. Fresh sea scallops from Canada and frozen Alaska scallops were tied for third. Though perfectly acceptable, they weren’t nearly as sweet or rich tasting as the diver scallops. However, the Alaska scallops looked great—big, meaty, and dry. Though I was told that they were not treated with phosphates, individually frozen scallops from Georges Bank, far into the Atlantic (purchased from Simply Seafood in Seattle along with the Alaska scallops) certainly looked “wet.” They oozed with milky white liquid and had a fragile texture. They also tasted pale and thin.
The Nantucket bay scallops I purchased from Browne Trading Co. were so sweet, it was hard to believe they weren’t soaked in honey. The cultured Taylor bay scallops were much earthier by contrast, marrying well with garlic, hot pepper flakes, olive oil and white wine. Chinese bay scallops smelled and tasted like something not produced in nature.
Perhaps more than any other seafood, scallops are the chameleons of the sea, which is why chefs use them in so many ways. At Brannan’s Grill in Calistoga, Calif., Executive Chef Steve Atkins pairs seared sea scallops with sautéed wild mushrooms, pureed garnet yams and a sweet corn sauce. Joe Fortunato, chef at The Tonic in New York, makes an appetizer of caramelized sea scallops, merguez sausage, polenta, and red grape and black olive salad. “There are a lot of extreme flavors in the dish but the scallops don’t get lost,” he says.
The simplest way to cook sea scallops is to sear them in a hot pan in a small amount of oil, 2 to 3 minutes on one side, then another 30 seconds to one minute on the other, depending on size. If you like your scallops breaded and fried (perhaps with a side of fries and coleslaw), Mitchell suggests soaking them in beaten eggs and milk for a half hour before breading.
Many white wines pair well with scallops. What you choose depends on how you’re preparing them. My favorites were French Chablis, Vouvray and Graves and German Riesling Kabinett. For particularly rich presentations, try a vintage Champagne.
Aggressive conservation has helped to make supplies of sea scallops abundant and to keep prices down, except for diver scallops, of course. But they’re worth the steep price, especially if someone other than me is diving for them.
How to Get it
- Browne Trading Company, Portland, Maine, 800-944-7848, www.browne-trading.com
- Citarella, New York, NY, 866-248-2735, www.citarella.com
- Farm 2 Market, Roscoe, NY, 800-663-4326 farm-2-market.com
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator magazine.