Sea Jewels

Scallops are wonderful gems for your plate, but you first must know how to select and prepare them

August 29, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

There might not be anything as beautiful as a perfectly seared scallop: pale, pearlescent meat surrounded by a brown-gold and crisp corona.

You can drape this scallop in a bright green herbed sauce or wrap in it pork.

You can try to show it up with a fresh-fruit salsa or mask its mild sweetness with a citrus vinaigrette.

But you have to do it justice.

"No matter how you prepare it," said Cindy Wolf, owner and chef of Baltimore's Charleston restaurant, "the scallop should be the center of the plate and the center of the dish."

The scallop is getting plenty of attention these days.

Because of its decidedly unfishy taste and smell, the scallop is increasingly popular among restaurant goers who are not overly fond of fish.

And that same mildness gives chefs a blank canvas on which to create.

"They are growing in popularity because restaurants are serving better scallops," said Patrick Morrow, chef at Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill.

Morrow indulges his imagination by preparing his signature scallop trio differently every few weeks.

"Right now, it's pork," he said. The scallops are wrapped in bacon, stuffed with andouille sausage and topped with braised pork belly.

"You get cravings, I get cravings. Right now, I crave pork."

If scallops present endless possibilities for the professional chef, they present two significant challenges for the home cook: choosing them and cooking them.

And the second challenge - cooking scallops without overcooking them until they develop the rubbery texture of an eraser - can be made more difficult if you choose your scallops poorly.

"With scallops, there isn't much to worry about except quality," said Bill Watkins, the consumer safety officer for the Food and Drug Administration's division of seafood safety.

"The trend now is for dry scallops, ones that are harvested and flash-frozen on the boat.

"But the scallop industry for as long as I have worked for the FDA is notorious for adding weight by soaking them in sodium tripolyphosphate [STP]."

(Scallops no longer can close their shells when they are harvested and the muscle that is the meat of the scallop quickly dries out. STP keeps them moist).

"You cook these things and the water comes out and you end up poaching them. And they just shrivel down.

"There's no harm, other than the customer pays more. In my opinion, that's economic fraud, but almost everybody does it."

Restaurateurs like Wolf are careful to buy their scallops not only dry, but fresh. Morrow says some of his arrive still in the shell.

Grocery stores and seafood markets can claim they are selling only dry scallops, but it is hard for the consumer to know for sure.

"A pool of milky white liquid is a dead giveaway," said Paul Johnson, author of Fish Forever, a guide to selecting and preparing sustainable seafood.

"And they may feel slippery or soapy, and have no odor or a mild chemical smell."

Cooking scallops is its own challenge. Though they are safe to eat raw, and the tiny calico scallops are probably best served that way in a ceviche, scallops should be cooked enough to release their sweetness and flavor, but not so much that they become tough and chewy.

Chef Michael Costa at Pazo likes to sear his scallops in grapeseed oil, which has a smoke point high enough to let the scallop develop its light-brown crust without overcooking.

"Then maybe I'll add a little bit of whole butter and baste it for 10 seconds to get the nice nutty flavor without burning the butter," he said.

At this time of year, scallops are also wonderful on the grill, threaded on bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water so that they don't burn.

Scallops don't really have a season, but for Ray Popson, seafood manager at Wegmans Food Market in Hunt Valley, they have a day. Saturday.

"We sell plenty on Friday, but on Saturday, it doubles," said Popson, who might sell 40 to 60 pounds a week.

Popson said he buys only dry fresh and dry frozen - "We put it on our sign" - and prices range from $12.99 to $16.99 a pound.

The bay scallop, smaller than the sea scallop and prized for its wonderful sweetness, has been fished almost to the point of extinction and its eelgrass habitat has been decimated by development, according to Johnson in Fish Forever.

Restaurants and seafood stores will occasionally happen onto a few pounds of bay scallops, but it is the over-large sea scallop that is most common on menus and in seafood cases.

Most of the bay scallops come from China, where they are farmed on a huge scale but not considered particularly tasty.

The farming of scallops, much preferred over the eco-unfriendly dredging method, is just beginning to develop in this country, according to Watkins.

The sea scallop is found from the Carolinas to Newfoundland, fished in areas that are opened and closed to reflect fishing quotas.

There are a few boats out of Ocean City that harvest scallops to sell to local shops and restaurants, said Howard King, director of the Maryland Fisheries Service in the Department of Natural Resources.

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