Over the years, I have decided that scallops are a favorite special occasion food that doesn't, as it turns out, require too much work to make delectable. Before this realization I was kind of lukewarm when it came to these bivalves. The truth is — and I say this to everyone, so forgive me if you've heard it before — that anything we really don't like is probably a food scar. Someone prepared the thing poorly, often under- or over cooking it, and it is up to us to come to terms with that reality and charge forward: brave and hopeful that there can be a fantastic experience to be had, just around the corner. This approach has served me well over time and scallops have been firmly in my "passionate about" department ever since.
Scallops swim using an adductor muscle, which clicks their two iconic shells together, propelling them through the water at the ocean floor. It is this meaty muscle that when shucked, appears in dining rooms and frying pans around the world to great delight. Male scallops are only white, but female scallops' adductor muscles turn a rosy hue when spawning, and are sought after by chefs and savvy home cooks for their sweeter, richer flavor.
When scallops are harvested by boat, it's usually a fishing vessel with an enormous chain mail mesh pouch that gets lowered into the ocean by pulleys, and then dragged — or dredged — across the ocean floor. Scallops harvested in this way are referred to as dayboat scallops, since often the vessel is out only for a day. The tricky part with this fishing method is that there is often considerable bycatch — unintended species, also trapped inside the pouch, who perish in the harvesting process.
Dayboat scallop fishing off the coast of the Atlantic in the U.S. is said to be slightly less harmful, since the ocean seabed there is more frequently disturbed by natural wave action and the current, which cannot support sensitive seabed species and habitats. If this factor is important as you source scallops, know that any scallop dredge fishery hoping to be viewed as sustainable must show evidence that it operates this way.
Another way in which scallops are harvested, and a real sustainable method, is what is known as diver scallops. Exactly as it sounds, these scallops are hand-harvested by scuba gear-clad divers from the shallows so as not to disturb the ocean floor's ecosystem and sea bed habitat. These scallops are the premium choice, and are always dry packed, so no additional fluid dilutes their flavor when cooked. They do cost more, but know that your dollars support a smart, sustainable harvest process and get you the freshest, plumpest meat possible.
You can enjoy scallops any number of ways. Here is a series of seasonal preparations I have prepared for guests at our Hudson Valley bed and breakfast, Catbird Cottage. Some absolute favorites will be included in my forthcoming cookbook, so that everyone can revel in this love affair.
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First, two spring-feeling crunchy salads incorporating creamy avocado, which pairs beautifully with burnished scallops. The first of these salads features colorful radishes, shaved fennel, and crunchy flake salt.
The second, one of my all-time favorite recipes, with avocado, celery and parsley leaves, and capers.
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Here's a celebration of summer full of seasonal bounty, including purslane, corn sauce, and nasturtium flowers.
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Scallops with Castelvetrano olives, pasta, and dill: It's a summer-into-fall dish to inspire.
Transition fall into winter using cold-weather fruits (such as pomegranate and persimmon) in a lush, yet still refreshing ceviche.
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This warming bouillabaisse is perfect for winter, and tastes powerfully of the sea.
And finally, rich, creamy beans scented with saffron and topped with tender seared scallops and bright dill.
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Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour 20 minutes
For the beans
- 1 cup dried navy beans
- 3 shallots, peeled, ends trimmed, and sliced into thin rings
- 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, depending on your penchant for heat
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon good olive oil
- 1 pinch kosher salt, plus more to taste
For the scallops
- 3 to 5 diver scallops per person, depending on their size
- 2 teaspoons ghee
- 1 tablespoon to 2 tablespoons good olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh dill fronds or parsley, to garnish
- 1 pinch kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 pinch freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
- Soak beans the night before, with enough cold water to submerge by 2 inches, about 2 cups.
- Sauté shallots in olive oil in a large saucepan until translucent and beginning to brown, 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Drain beans into a colander. Add the saffron, chili flakes, and paprika, and stir in the beans until combined. Add enough water to cover by 1/2 inch and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and cook until tender, about 70 minutes.
- Once the beans are tender, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir to combine, taste, and add more as needed. This step is best done at the start of the day, where the beans can sit in their liquor for a few hours, soaking in their liquid to enrich the overall texture. This can also be done a day in advance, left to sit at room temperature with the lid ajar.
- Arrange scallops on an absorbent paper-lined tray and pat dry. Season with salt and allow to sit at room temperature an hour before cooking.
- Heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat. Turn to medium-high once hot, add a tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat. As soon as the oil pulls to pan edges, add half the scallops, keeping space between them to avoid crowding. Cook for a minute, then add half the ghee, dragging it between the scallops using a knife or tongs as it foams.
- Sear scallops in two batches, 3 minutes on the first side to develop a golden crust, then turn to the second side and baste with the hot fat, tipping pan towards you to collect spoonfuls and pouring over scallops repeatedly, for about 30 seconds. Scallops are ready when they are bouncy when pressed with the back of a large spoon. Transfer scallops to a plate and repeat with the second batch, adding the remainder of oil and ghee to cook as you did in the first batch.
- As the scallops finish cooking, reheat beans if you allowed them to sit, adding any accumulated juices from the scallops plate and stir to incorporate. Ladle beans into shallow bowls and nestle in the scallops. Add a few grinds of freshly cracked pepper, scatter herbs on top, and eat at once.