Usually, if a restaurant has scallops in its menu, I’ll order it.
That’s because here in the Midwest, scallops aren’t the menu mainstay they are on the East and West Coasts, possibly due to their being highly perishable.
In restaurants, however, when we refer to “scallops”, we actually are talking only about the abductor muscle the creature uses to open and close its shell. The muscle is quite large in comparison to the size of the shell, about 1 inch in diameter compared to a sea scallop’s average 5-inch shell.
That’s because unlike mussels or oysters, which tend to lie in beds or adhere to surfaces, scallops are highly mobile and migrate vast distances in search of food and to avoid predators. Their mobility is attributed to the big abductor muscle, which the scallop uses to forcefully open and close its shell, propelling itself in great leaps of 3 feet and longer.
A scallop can’t survive out of the water for more than a minute or two and quickly begins to deteriorate, so commercial fishermen remove the abductor muscle from the scallop, soaking it in icy fresh water. This causes the meaty muscle to swell up, increasing its bulk by about a third and causing the orange-tinted abductor muscle to turn white. It also loses some of its naturally nutty and sweet flavor, but is allows time to get the scallop to market.
Even so, the quality of a scallop declines with each hour and should be consumed within 48 hours of harvest for optimal flavor. Hence, their absence on many inland menus.
There are 400 different species of scallops, but only two broad categories: Sea scallops and bay scallops. Usually when you order scallops, you will receive sea scallops. These hockey-puck shaped delicacies usually range from about 1″ to 2″ in diameter. If you are buying them fresh, along one side they have a little nub of a counter-muscle which usually is removed because it is tougher than the main abductor muscle, although it is edible.
Bay scallops are much smaller, about the size of a gumdrop, and are harvested from Cape Hatteras down the Florida Coast and up around the state’s Gulf side. Other than the size, I’ve never found a substantial taste difference between sea scallops and bay scallops.
Scallops are kept in water and shipped in cans about the size of paint cans. They must be used right away because they go bad within a day or two. If one scallop in the can is bad, usually the whole can must be thrown out because the odor will be absorbed by the other scallops.
Some high end restaurants sometimes list their scallops as “diver caught”. In my experience, this is simply marketing and diver caught scallops and regular scallops all come out of the same can.
Occasionally, I will find scallops at my local fish monger’s. They tend to be more expensive than other seafood — these were $13.99/lb — so they are only an occasional extravagance for me. Also, my wife doesn’t like scallops and won’t eat them, so they are all for me.
I usually pan sear scallops by getting a non-stick pan very hot, then adding oil and letting it reach the smoke point. You want to dry off the scallops with a paper towel, otherwise the moisture will cause the pan to flambe when you add the scallops to the pan.
I simply season the scallops with sea salt and fresly cracked black pepper then carefully add them to the smoking hot oil, letting them brown nicely, about three minutes per side. Overcooked scallops become tough and chewy, so be careful not to let them sit in the pan too long.
Scallops also can be grilled if they are large enough not to fall through the grates. Theyalso can be poached.
I served these scallops over creamy polenta garnished with braised mustard greens and drizzed with a roasted garlic butter sauce. The flavor combinations were superb.
A popular way to serve scallops is inside a hallowed out scallop shell, which are quite beautiful. If you are not familiar with what they look like, the logo for Shell gasoline is a scallop shell.