This Is the Season for the Sweetest Kind of Sustainable Seafood

Winter is the time to eat scallops, a filter feeder that cleans marine habitats and can be sustainably harvested.
Pan-seared diver scallops. (Photo: Cyrus McCrimmon/Getty Images)
Jan 27, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

When it comes to seafood, I am not an original or ambitious cook. I would rather keep things simple and fast, especially when it comes to scallops, one of winter’s greatest delicacies.

Scallops, like clams, oysters, and mussels, are filter-feeding bivalves. Unlike those other saltwater mollusks, which have recumbent lives, scallops can move about freely. Because they have many primitive eyes, they can sense the motion of a starfish or other predator and skitter away by using their strong, prominent drum-shaped adductor muscle (the meat we eat) to clap their shells together.

I’m not the only person who finds the fact that scallops can swim utterly captivating. Materials engineers may find it interesting, and back in the 1990s, the chef Leslie Revsin, who died way too young, described them as the castanets of the sea in Great Fish, Quick: Delicious Dinners From Fillets and Shellfish. Her lyrical image is borne out in videos such as this one. “The first time I startled a flock of those things,” a diver once told me, “I almost had a heart attack.”

Sea scallops, the most common type you’ll find at the fish market, are big, meaty, and rich-tasting. Although some come from the North Pacific, the primary fishery (and one of the country’s most lucrative single-species commercial fisheries) is in the Atlantic. According to the Marine Stewardship Council, the Atlantic Coast sea scallop (Placepecten magellanicus) has a geographic range that stretches from Pistolet Bay, Newfoundland, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

According to the Safina Center, sea scallops grow quickly and mature at a young age, traits that make them resilient to fishing pressure. “In the U.S. Sea Scallops were once overfished but have since recovered, thanks to effective management,” the website reads. “In Canada, Sea Scallops are also at a healthy abundance.”

The most sustainable wild scallops are hand-harvested from the seafloor by scuba divers and fetch a premium price. The vast majority of them, however, are harvested by what’s called a New Bedford dredge—a 15-foot-wide steel frame used to drag a chain bag along the seafloor. That kind of fishing gear has inevitable bycatch issues when it comes to flat fish and turtles, however, and research into designing a kinder, gentler dredge is ongoing. One organization that’s doing lots of good work on that front is the Coonamessett Farm Foundation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. Its scientists have been among the grant recipients of NOAA’s Atlantic Sea Scallop Research Set-Aside Program, which partners researchers and fishers and conducts at-sea operations on board fishing vessels.

Scallop aquaculture, by the way, is fairly common in Japan and China (where it is far more sustainable than, say, shrimp farming), and the Peruvian company Acuapesca Group has produced the world’s first farmed scallops certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Although farmed scallops are considered a “best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, they are still relatively uncommon in the United States. But while these mollusks aren’t the easiest seafood to cultivate, scallop aquaculture is gaining momentum in New England; one notable producer is Taylor Bay Farms on Nantucket.

Scallops are highly perishable after being harvested, so they’re typically shucked at sea and iced in muslin bags. They naturally contain up to 75 or 80 percent water and are often soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate, a common additive in the frozen-food industry. Small amounts of STP help bind the natural water content of the food to the protein, thus preventing “drip loss” when frozen food is thawed. Over the years, unscrupulous scallop processors discovered that when soaked in a relatively strong solution of STP or newer, more-difficult-to-detect water-retaining additives, freshly shucked scallops may absorb more than 25 percent extra water—which you, the consumer, pay for, because scallops are sold by weight. Not only does soaking dilute the flavor of scallops, but when they’re cooked, they weep liquid, thus ending up steamed and shriveled instead of sautéed or seared until browned, and leave a soapy aftertaste.

Scallops treated with STP or other additives are supposed to be labeled as such when they reach the market, but the FDA has wrestled with enforcement issues for years. That’s why you’ll find chefs and other careful shoppers avoiding the suspiciously cheap scallops available at big-box stores and paying top dollar for scallops labeled “untreated,” “chemical-free,” or “dry-packed.” Even the term “day-boat” has become a synonym for untreated scallops; after all, it seldom makes economic sense for a commercial scalloper to make a trip out and back to his deep-water fishing grounds in one day.

So how do you tell the difference between treated and untreated scallops? Well, treated scallops look unnaturally white and shiny, they feel flabby and slippery, and you may see them sitting in milky-looking liquid.

Untreated scallops, on the other hand, have a natural sheen, or “bloom,” and are a translucent creamy white. (Occasionally, you’ll see a scallop splashed pale orange, pink, or tan; that doesn’t mean the scallop is bad but that it has taken on the coloration of roe or certain plankton in the water.) Untreated scallops are firm, springy, moist, and slightly sticky to the touch.

As far as bay scallops (Argopecten irradians) go, many of those consumed in the U.S. today are imported from China and Mexico, as the eelgrass habitat of domestic wild bay scallops is under pressure from nutrient pollution and algal blooms. Coastal communities from New England to the mid-Atlantic are increasingly aware that healthy bay scallop fisheries (ka-ching, ka-ching) can help drive wetlands restoration.

I’m a great champion of bay scallops—they have a delicate, nutty-sweet-briny balance. Those from Nantucket Bay, in New England, are renowned for their almost candy-like sweetness and size (about the size of a mini marshmallow); they cost a fortune, but promise me you’ll splurge just once.

I’m fortunate in that I spend lots of time near Peconic Bay, which divides the two forks of Long Island. There, as in Nantucket Bay, the scallops are harvested from shallow waters by fishers in small boats with the help of hand dredges. The scallops are landed live, taken ashore, and shucked immediately. In early November, at the start of the season, my local seafood market sets up big tables right in the middle of the store for the shuckers, and no matter what I walked in for, it’s pretty much impossible to leave without a pound of those beauties.

Although a pound or two of top-quality bay or sea scallops is far from cheap, once you remove the tough little ligament glommed on to the side of each one, there is no waste. (In Japan, even those odd bits are used. Scallop ligament, called himo, is dried into chewy squiggles, like squid jerky, and eaten as a snack with sake or beer.)

In the kitchen, it’s hard to beat a quick sauté in a hot skillet with butter and a little lemon juice. (Quickly rinse the scallops first, though, to remove any grit, and pat them dry.) Pull them off the heat when they’re ever-so-slightly underdone, and they’ll be satiny on the tongue. Because scallops cook so quickly, they make a wonderful meal if you find yourself having to entertain during the week. Served with potatoes, brussels sprouts, or broccoli and a slice or two of crisp bacon, they are festive and homey at the same time.