Once upon a time, I was absurdly ignorant about food. My culinary world was a simple one at best. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich . . . check. Baked fish sticks . . . check. Chef Boyardee . . . check. Fancy food was not a part of a normal person’s daily routine, was it? Roast lamb with a balsamic reduction? Sorry, not on my menu. Chateaubriand . . . Sha-toe-bree-who? Peking Duck? Please, the only duck I was interested in was either named Daffy or Donald.
I used to be so undeniably gullible that I actually believed a grocer when he informed me scallops were cookie-cutter stamped from the body of dead fish in a secret underground factory . . . presumably, that solved the mystery for me of why scallops were so uniformly round. It was my reigning duh moment for many years. In hindsight, however, perhaps the grocer was telling the truth as he knew it—that his store was actually carving out little edible knobs of ‘scallop’ from shark meat or some other such similar foe from the sea.
Years later, I learned the truth: A scallop is, in fact, a bivalve mollusk. To be more precise, in terms of consumption, it’s the muscle of the mollusk that we find so delicately sweet, so appealing and so hard to resist.
Not many of us are fortunate enough to be waiting at the port when scallop fisherman come rolling in with the tide. For the lucky few who are able to get their scallops fresh off the boat—so close to the source, chemical-free and with the coveted roe intact—well, you will forever be my seafood nemesis. The rest of us will have to gather our “fresh” treasured scallops from the local fishmonger, farmers market or the grocery store.
There’s actually more to the scallop than meets the average stomach. In its natural state, the adductor muscle is just one component of the scallop. Although scallops are harvested, among other places, in the waters of North America, the consumer typically does not purchase the entire scallop whole—shell and all—but rather they are usually sold pre-shucked and ready to cook.
The scallop also contains reproductive organs called “roe,” a coral-colored sac that is actually edible. Unlike our friends across the sea, the squeamish nature of Americans and our inherent aversion to consuming foods with reckless abandon like our name is Andrew Zimmern in an episode of Bizarre Foods usually means that most of us never have the opportunity to try this tiny culinary delicacy, but it is favored and common in Europe.
Beware of uncooked scallops that are chalky in appearance or pure white. In their raw state, scallops are not naturally bright white. It is only when they are cooked that they turn white. Instead, their hue should be pale beige to creamy pink. An unusually white color could mean that the scallops have been wet-packed.
Whenever possible, avoid buying wet-packed scallops as they can contain a substance called sodium tripolyphospate (STP). This additive allows the scallop to retain a higher concentration of water than natural. This, in turn, increases their weight, which you ultimately pay for as scallops are sold by weight. Opt instead for dry packed scallops, which do not contain additives. Dry packed scallops also have the advantage of shrinking less when sautéed because there’s less water (which causes the scallops to steam and overcook without that beautiful caramelization that makes them so aesthetically pleasing).
While hundreds of varieties of scallops exist worldwide, the most common types in the U.S. are bay scallops (above) and sea scallops. Bay scallops are smaller, more tender and sweeter than their larger cousin, the sea scallops. There is also a third type—the calico scallop—that is less common and less sweet than bay and sea scallops. They are also the tiniest of the three scallops.
Many restaurants will feature diver scallops on their menu. Personally, I’m a deliriously huge fan of diver scallops, so aptly named because, instead of being harvested by the more traditional method of dredging or using a trawler on the bottom of the ocean or sea floor, they are hand-harvested by divers.
What’s the big advantage of diver scallops? Less grit. At least once in ever scallop eater’s life, you’ve come across a gritty scallop—it’s a profoundly creepy sensation that feels like the enamel on your teeth is being ground away with each chew. There is also an ecological advantage as this hand-picking process doesn’t cause damage and degradation to the underwater plant life, as dredging can.
The ‘Goodness’ of Scallops
Not only are scallops delicious with a sweet flavor, they are naturally low in fat. They are also a source of potassium, Vitamin B12, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. Each of these benefits has a whole host of health advantages that we may not consider when taking that first, scrumptious bite.
Here is a simple yet delicious scallop recipe that has become one of my favorites that you can prepare in your kitchen.
3/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup soy sauce (low sodium preferred)
12 large sea scallops halved
12 slices turkey bacon, halved
1. In a bowl, mix together maple syrup, Dijon mustard and soy sauce until smooth. Add the scallops and coat with mixture. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in refrigerator for at least one hour.
2. When ready to prepare scallops, preheat oven to 375° (190°C).
3. Arrange bacon on a baking sheet without overlapping. Bake until some of the grease has been rendered out of the bacon (8 minutes or so). Remove bacon from sheet and pat with paper towel to remove excess grease. Also wipe excess grease from baking sheet.
4. Wrap each marinated scallop with bacon, securing with a toothpick. Place on baking sheet and sprinkle with brown sugar.
5. Bake until the bacon is crisp and scallops are opaque (turning once during baking) – about 10-15 minutes.