There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.
These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)
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The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.
What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.
Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.
Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”
But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:
- Be sure you get dry scallops.
- Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
- Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
- Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.
Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finally chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered
4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)
1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops
1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
- In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
- Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
- When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
- When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
- Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
- Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
- Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
- As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
- When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
- Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
- Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove and serve immediately.
Where to find Maine sea scallops
You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.
- Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
- Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
- Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
- Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.
Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins