The scallop is the only bivalve to have a patron saint. Considering the rigors of scallop fishing, the fan-shaped shellfish needs one. Imagine donning waist-high boots, wading in icy water up to your hips and raking up hundreds of pounds of scallops as a numbing November wind whips the sea around you. And that's the easy part!
The hard part is shucking the scallops: prying open the razor-sharp shells with your bare fingers and inserting a knife to cut the adductor, the muscle that holds the shells together. It is only this meaty muscle that we eat. To obtain a single pound of meat, the fisherman must haul and shuck 10 pounds of scallops. Which helps explain why this shellfish is among the most costly of the fishmonger's wares.
The association of scallops and religion is a venerable one, dating from martyrdom of St. James, the apostle who brought Christianity to Spain. The saint was put to death in Judea in A.D. 44, and his corpse was put to sea in a boat. According to the legend, a steed swam out, recovered the body, and miraculously returned it to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The horse and rideremerged from the sea covered with round, ribbed scallop shells.
Santiago became an important destination for pilgrims during the Middle Ages; worshipers would return to Paris, London or Cologne decked with scallop shells -- a testimony to their pilgrimage. The French name for scallop, appropriately enough, is Coquille St. Jacques, "St. James shell."
Religion aside, scallops are remarkable creatures, and among the rare bivalves that can see. Their shells are rimmed with with iridescent green eyes (40 to 50 of them) that can detect light and motion, but not form.
There are two major types: sea scallops and bay scallops. The former are 4 to 6 inches across, and yield nuggets of meat the size of a walnut. Bay scallops are found in shallow waters from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. The edible part is no bigger than your thumbnail, but it's incredibly sweet and delicate.
When buying scallops, look for whole, plump muscles, with a clean, pleasantly briny smell. Sea scallops are available year round, and are at their best during the summer. Bay scallop season goes from mid-October to March. Freezing makes scallops look watery and opaque; another telltale sign is lots of milky liquid at the bottom of the tray. As is true with most seafood, freezing is worse for the texture than the taste.
Scallops are well suited to sauteing, broiling, frying and baking. Whichever cooking method you use, don't skimp on the butter: The scallop itself has very little fat. The scallop's firm texture and lack of bones make it excellent for mousses and pates.
Scallops have a small, opaque, crescent-shaped muscle on one side, which should be removed before cooking. (It's noticeably tougher than the rest of the shellfish.) Simply pull it off with your fingers. Not every scallop will have such an appendage (they fall off during shucking), but be suspicious if all are removed -- such "scallops" could be stamped out from the wings of ray or skate. When buying scallops figure on 1/2 pound per person.
Bay scallops in Vermont cob-smoked bacon
Serves 8 as an appetizer.
1 pound bay scallops
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 strips lemon peel (removed with a vegetable peeler)
2 sprigs rosemary
10 grinds of pepper
6-8 ounces Vermont cob-smoked bacon
Combine the scallops, oil, lemon, rosemary and pepper in a glass bowl and marinate for 2 hours. Cut the bacon into 2-inch pieces.
Drain the scallops, discarding the herbs. Wrap each scallop with bacon and secure with a toothpick. Just before serving, heat the broiler and broil the scallops for 1-2 minutes per side, or until the bacon is browned and scallops are firm. Drain on paper towels and serve at once.
Note: Smithfield ham can be substituted for Vermont cob-smoked bacon.
Serves six as an appetizer, four as an entree.
Scallops are so well suited to being baked with cracker crumbs and cream that they have lent their name to any seafood prepared in this style. Bread crumbs can be substituted for the cracker crumbs, but try to make them from scratch.
1 pound bay scallops
juice of 1/2 lemon
12 ounces fresh spinach
2-3 tablespoons butter
1 cup cracker crumbs
salt, fresh black pepper, a pinch of cayenne pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg
paprika for sprinkling
1 8-inch gratin dish
Mix the scallops with most of the lemon juice in a large bowl. Remove the stems from the spinach and wash. Loosely shake the spinach dry.
Melt half the butter in a large saucepan over high heat. Cook the butter until it browns. (This is called beurre noisette; it has a lovely hazelnut flavor.) Add the spinach and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 1-2 minutes, or until the leaves are just wilted. Season the spinach with salt, pepper and a few drops of lemon juice. Spoon the spinach over the bottom of the dish.