A joy of living in Maine is year-round access to bountiful, relatively affordable, ultra-fresh seafood. Sure, there's the ubiquitous lobster, especially plentiful come summer. In winter, Mainers eagerly anticipate ice-fished fried smelts and tiny, pink Maine shrimp — though, sadly, this season there's a moratorium on them.
Maine's sea scallops, whose wild beds were subject to three years of rotational closures, are recovering through restrictions as fishermen net record-high prices. For those in the know, this fresh, fleeting delicacy, harvested from early December through March, softens the harsh blow of winter.
Scallops were low on my favorite seafood list before moving to Maine. The smellier specimens I'd often encountered were usually more than a week old and artificially plumped in a milky solution. Such scallops don't lend themselves to my favorite preparations: ceviche and sashimi, or seared with a still-raw, velvety center, like sushi-grade tuna. When overcooked, they turn rubbery, like erasers.
Laura McCandlish for NPR
Laura McCandlish for NPR
So my first bite of a sweet, meaty Maine scallop was pure revelation. They're so fresh, the person at the seafood counter encourages you to try one raw. There's now a growing awareness of scallop provenance, as the Atlantic sea scallop — the United States' highest-value fishery — just secured "sustainable" certification. The controversial effort, led by the American Scallop Association, benefits industrial vessels that dredge far offshore in federal waters for more than 99 percent of the nation's harvest, but doesn't include Maine's inshore, more mom-and-pop scallopers. In fact, Maine is the only state with a significant close-to-shore scallop fishery, thanks to its cold waters and vast coastline. While scallops are still available year-round, Maine limits their harvest to winter to accommodate the dominant lobster fishery. This way, lobstermen can drag for scallops in the off-season, without worrying about other scallopers disrupting their millions of lobster buoy-marked traps come summer.
It's worth asking where your scallops come from, how old they are and how they were caught. Beyond the huge New England stock, farm-raised scallops come from Peru and Asia, wild ones from Canada and Japan and giant weathervane scallops from Alaska. Unlike oysters and clams, concerns about accumulated toxins mean Americans generally only eat the scallop's large adductor muscle, not the whole mollusk in its shell, a delicacy in Europe and Asia. (In fact, all bivalves including clams have this shell-opening/closing muscle; it's just more exercised and thus much bigger on scallops.) Maine scallop champion Togue Brawn and new scallop farmers hope to land ripe roe-on scallops come summer when the attached tasty coral eggs are at their plumpest. The carotenoid in the roe also gives orange-colored scallops their "butterscotch" tint.
There are four D's that identify Maine scallops in addition to their winter harvest date: day boats, divers, dry-packed and diameter. Day boats are scallops shucked and landed the same day they were harvested, unlike those caught on the standard week-plus fishing trip on federal waters. The coveted day boats are harvested as far south as New Jersey and around Cape Cod. New Bedford, Mass., is by far our richest scallop port, but scallops there tend to be landed by larger "trip" boats out to sea much longer than a day.
Buyer beware of "diver" scallop fraud — where menus appropriate the expensive-sounding "diver" (and even "day boat") to deceptively describe any large scallop. True divers are extremely rare and especially associated with Maine. Here, intrepid scuba divers don dry suits at dawn and jump into frigid waters, hand-plucking the more mature mollusks from the ocean floor. Diver Brian Soper of Gurnet Trading Co. near my home in Brunswick, is my go-to source. I also got some beautiful ones from day-boater Larry Rich through my Salt & Sea weekly fish share out of Portland, Maine. They were $16 a pound, a relative bargain compared with the $25 a pound my dad's excellent seafood shop in Virginia charged for premium Maine scallops.
Also, insist your scallops are "dry-packed." The previously frozen "dry" Canadian ones for sale at my Hannaford Supermarket were likely tastier than any supposedly "fresh" wet ones. Unfortunately, most grocery stores sell scallops soaked in a phosphate solution, a preservative that improves shelf life and moisture retention, which can add a soapy flavor. Plus, the excess liquid makes it difficult to get that nice crust when searing the scallops (they steam instead). So stick to dry or "chemical-free" ones.
That brings us to the fourth D —"diameter." Remember, we're not talking about smaller, but equally prized, Nantucket bay scallops here (though they are sublime raw-cured). With sea scallops, think large, so you'll only require one or two as the crowning jewel of a dish. Shells must have at least a 4-inch diameter for legal harvest, though Atlantic scallops can push 9 inches in diameter, as they can live for more than 20 years. The shucked muscle can measure as large as 3 inches across. Scallop size is indicated as "U10" (under 10 per pound — the largest) to up to "40/60" per pound (very small for sea scallops).
Take it from top chefs such as Thomas Keller, who emphasizes the superiority of Maine scallops in all of his cookbooks. He has long overnighted them from an unlikely seafood dealer in Stonington, Down East. You, too, can have them shipped from Maine Dayboat Scallops, my local Gurnet Trading Co., Port Clyde Fresh Catch and the esteemed Browne Trading Co. Or consider scallops one more excuse to visit this wonderland in the snowy off-season. You can't assume scallops at restaurants and markets here come fresh from Maine, but in our finest establishments, seek and ye shall find.
Sea Scallop Ceviche With Watermelon Radish And Avocado
The freshest scallops are best unadulterated, raw. My mentor chef-father suggested the truffle oil here, plus the sushi garnishes of wasabi mayo and pickled ginger. Alkaline scallops star in any citrusy ceviche. Striking pink watermelon radishes are a natural raw scallop complement and give the drab winter table a necessary shot of color. I've also paired raw scallops with crisp apples, purple kohlrabi, sweet white turnip and even homemade sauerkraut.
Serves at least 4 as an appetizer
Laura McCandlish for NPR
Laura McCandlish for NPR
1 pound jumbo fresh sea scallops (preferably day boats or true divers)
2 tablespoons shallot or red onion, diced or in thin slices
2 medium watermelon radishes, sliced or shaved into thin circles or half-moons
1 avocado (ripe yet still firm), sliced into half moons
1 teaspoon white truffle oil (dashes to taste, optional)
Sea salt (Maldon flakes add great texture) and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh green herbs (cilantro, tarragon, parsley or basil — whatever you have on hand, for garnish)
Pat scallops dry with a paper towel but don't rinse, to preserve that briny, fresh-from-the-sea flavor. Remove each scallop's tough side muscle and discard or reserve for chowder (this connective tissue is still edible, so I often skip this step). Using a sharp knife, slice the scallops horizontally into thin disks, or cut into half-inch chunks.
Toss in a bowl with the citrus juices, olive oil, ume plum vinegar, garlic, ginger and shallot. Let the contents cure at room temperature for 15 minutes, or refrigerate for several hours.
Arrange the radish and avocado slices around each plate's circumference (or on one large serving plate). Arrange the scallop pieces in the center with some of the citrus marinade. Dash the plate with white truffle oil, salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste. Garnish with minced green herbs. Serve at a temperature more ambient than chilled, to accentuate the flavors.
Pepper-Crusted Diver Scallops With Carrot Vanilla Emulsion
This standby dish from chef Steve Corry of five fifty-five restaurant in Portland appears in both editions of the Fresh From Maine (Table Arts Media, 2012) cookbook collaboration by Michael S. Sanders and photographer Russell French. The peppery crust here nicely contrasts with the scallop's silky interior. The carrot, vanilla and licorice-fennel flavors accentuate the scallops' sweet, subtle flavor.
10 ounces cold, unsalted butter, cubed and divided
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 fennel bulbs
1/2 cup Sambuca or other anisette liqueur
1 cup cream (or less to taste; try subbing plain yogurt for some of the cream)
2 large Yukon gold potatoes
1 large Russet potato
16 large Maine scallops (8 to 10 count per pound; preferably divers)
1/2 cup freshly ground black peppercorns (could substitute ground fennel seeds for half the pepper)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
For the carrot vanilla emulsion, peel and juice carrot, pulverize in a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix, or substitute fresh store-bought juice. In a small stainless-steel pot, warm carrot juice over low heat. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds out with a knife, adding both bean and seeds (or vanilla extract) to the juice. Slowly whisk 4 ounces of the cold butter into the warm carrot juice. Add the lemon juice and season with salt. Set pot in larger pan half-filled with warm tap water until serving.
For the fennel and potato purée, core, clean and chop the fennel bulbs into 1-inch dice, then sauté in another 4 ounces of butter over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add Sambuca and flambé. Cover with the cream. Braise over low heat, covered, for about 30 minutes or until tender. Purée in food processor or blender, or pass through fine sieve.
Peel and quarter the potatoes and simmer in salted water until tender. Strain and run through food mill or ricer. Begin adding potato to fennel until you achieve a purée the consistency of velvety mashed potatoes. Season to taste with salt.
Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and salt them. Spread black pepper in a thin layer over a large plate, and coat one flat side of each scallop with pepper.
Heat two 12-inch sauté pans over very high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to each pan. When oil is very hot, place 8 scallops pepper side down in each pan and sear until golden brown. Turn heat down to medium. Add 1 ounce cold, cubed butter to each pan, then turn scallops over to finish cooking, about 2 minutes.
Put a small mound of fennel purée in center of 4 shallow bowls or plates. Pour a shallow pool of carrot sauce around the purée. Evenly space 4 scallops in a circle around purée in each bowl, resting part of the scallop on the purée. At his five fifty five restaurant, Corry serves this menu staple with baby carrots, pearl onions and fresh edamame as a simple, bright accompaniment, arranging them between the scallops on each plate, topped with a scallion garnish (I used the fresh sage I had on hand instead).
Sea Scallops With Maple Asian Glaze
Scallops marry well with most Japanese, Chinese and Korean flavors. These lacquered morsels are delicious on their own, atop a salad or tucked into sushi rolls, or served on a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes. The sauce here is actually similar to what I use for a fresh seaweed salad marinade. The Korean wonder-condiment gochujang, which gives Sriracha chili sauce a run for its money, adds a real je ne sais quoi to this dish. The healthful coconut oil imparts a nice flavor, too.
1/4 cup kimchi, for garnish (optional; could substitute pickled ginger)
Pat the scallops dry and season generously with salt and pepper. In a bowl, mix together all the sauce ingredients, from the tamari through the minced garlic. Set aside.
Heat the coconut oil in a large, heavy sauté pan or cast iron skillet over high burner. Just before the oil approaches the smoke point, disperse the scallops evenly in pan, making sure they don't touch each other (if they do, they'll steam instead of caramelize). Reduce heat to medium-low and sear until golden on that side, about 2 minutes. Pour Asian sauce into pan and turn scallops with tongs, cooking about 2 more minutes.
Remove scallops to plates and reduce sauce a few more minutes until desired glaze consistency. Drizzle sauce over seared scallops and spritz with a squeeze of fresh citrus juice. Garnish with sesame seeds, cilantro leaves and small mound of kimchi or pickled ginger, and serve.
Bacon-Wrapped Scallops With Maine Maple Syrup
The maple-chipotle marinated scallops at the excellent Mexi-Cali El Camino Cantina in Brunswick, Maine, illustrate how good maple syrup accentuates a cooked scallop's caramel flavor. Then I took the plunge for half a pastured pig from a local farm this season. It seemed natural to pair all that bacon with scallops for a popular holiday appetizer. Or serve them over a bed of greens, as Cynthia Finnemore Simonds does in Fresh Maine Salads (Down East Books, 2006). Stuff the scallops first with blue cheese and fig for a luxe combination. The Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten's recipe inspired me to oven-roast maple bacon. The challenge is crisping the bacon without drying the tender scallops out — you can also try parboiling the bacon first to ensure the scallops don't turn rubbery.
1 pound large to medium sea scallops (I used 10-20 count per pound)
1 tablespoon sage, either crumbled dry or minced fresh
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F. Immerse bamboo skewers or round wooden toothpicks in water for 15 to 30 minutes so they don't burn during cooking (or use metal skewers).
In a small bowl, mix together maple syrup, mustard, vinegar, garlic and Worcestershire sauce and set aside.
Cut the bacon slices in half lengthwise and arrange in a single layer on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for about 15 minutes, making sure not to fully cook the bacon. Remove from oven. Retain bacon fat in pan. Pat the bacon slices with a paper towel, then brush them with the maple mixture. Turn on oven broiler.
Pat scallops dry with paper towels. Wrap a bacon slice around each scallop and secure by threading through a skewer. Brush both sides of the scallop with the maple sauce, and then with bacon fat reserved in the pan. Sprinkle with crumbled dried sage or minced fresh sage.
Arrange back on the wire rack over pan. Broil about 10 minutes total, turning carefully once halfway through (and basting with more maple sauce), until the scallops are just-cooked and the bacon is crisp. (Bacon-wrapped scallops are also often grilled or could be done in a stove-top grill pan). Season with salt and freshly ground pepper before serving.