Sweet Wellfleet Blue Eyes
November 16, 2011
There are fish to be missed at this time of year. The blues, for instance. All of them from mackerel and bluefish to the big bluefin tuna are packing up now to leave our shores until next year. But those of us who live to eat here on the Outer Cape know how to move on quickly. Right now we're busy with bushels of bay scallops. This is one of seafood's sweetest seasons.
At my house, bay scallops rarely make it to the table. Instead they are stolen, one at a time, straight out of the hot baking dish by my cool-hand daughters. Bella likes them better than Halloween candy.
She ought to, considering their price, which after a higher start settled down to about $25 a pound this week. At Mac's, Ron Brunelle is the guy to ask about why they're so expensive. I found him yesterday at our Truro market, where he spent a good part of the day shucking bay scallops––a skill he learned growing up in Eastham. His dad, Ray, was a groundfisherman who expected Ron to shuck and do other fishing-related chores after school every day.
Ray's lessons took. We met Ron a few years ago when he came to sell us his own bay scallops. He's still got his skiff, but right now he's too busy tracking down seafood for us to go out fishing. He manages our wholesale operation.
I can see that Ron hasn't lost his touch with the bay scallops: he opens and cleans a couple of pounds while we talk. That's one reason for their price tag right there: bay scallops are small. A whole bushel of the good-sized ones he's shucking will yield just over six pounds of dry scallops for sale.
You want them "dry," by the way, and not bright white. That means they've not been dunked in a slurry of STP, the bleaching agent and preservative, sodium tripolyphosphate, which is used by people bent on ruining one of nature's perfect foods. The "tri-poly" plumps up the scallops––good for profits, bad for cooks. I was taught that a perfect bay scallop should be ivory colored. "Sure, but look at this one," says Ron, holding up a scallop that's tinged almost yellow. "It's natural for them to be varied like this."
They're labor-intensive in other ways, too. Bay scallopers go out––usually two at a time––at high tide, for brief trips, always ending by 4:30pm, when they're required to be back on shore. They lower a 28-inch drag that looks something like a clam rake with a mesh bag attached into shallow water, then haul the scallops up from the sandy bottom to be sorted on board.
"Bay scallops are a lot smarter than oysters," Ron says. He's laughing, but this part is true: "They see you coming, they squirt, and they get away from you." Unlike oysters, scallops are free-swimming. Tiny blue "eyes" that rim their shells allow them to sense a predator's approach.
When the haul comes up, some of its weight turns out to be nothing more than eel grass and small rocks. The fishermen go over the scallops one by one, checking to be sure they're well into their second year of growth. Anything younger than that has to be returned to the water.
The bay scallop season doesn't actually end here until spring, but most fishermen stop going after them come January because each trip yields fewer mature scallops.
They're in the same family, but bay scallops (argopecten irradians) are not baby sea scallops (those are placopecten magellanicus). The bay scallop is a short-lived species, with a lifespan of only three years, so the point is actually to harvest only the oldest ones that don't have another reproductive season ahead of them. The scallops aren't tested for size the way oysters are. Ron points out the shading that gives away a bay scallop's age, bands of color that remind me of tree rings.
Ron tries to find some seed to show me what it looks like, but he can't find any in the bushel he's working on. That's a good thing, since seed is not supposed to be taken either. Some New England communities are introducing seed to try to increase bay scallop populations. And last spring we tasted some nice little farm-raised scallops, but we decided the production process wasn't quite ready for prime time. Then there's China. They're doing a booming business in bay scallops, and Ron tells me the seed that started their production came from around here.
"But when you eat bay scallops like these, which we got today from Stage Harbor in Chatham, you're eating something rare," Ron says. "There are very few places in the world where bay scallop are growing from a natural set."
Wild things, you make my heart sing.
Buttery Broiled Bay Scallops
These would be so good alongside some buttery homemade pasta and a few greens. But like I said, in my family these never make it to the table. The four of us eat about one pint as an appetizer, dipping a little crusty bread into the buttery pan juices once we've polished off the scallops.
1 pint (about one pound) fresh, untreated ("dry") local bay scallops
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bread crumbs (don't use panko, it's too coarse for these small, delicate scallops)
a pinch of salt
Take the scallops out of the fridge to come to room temperature while you heat the broiler. That will help them brown more evenly.
Spread the scallops in a shallow, broiler-proof baking dish. Pour the wine into the bottom of the dish. Break the butter into bits and dot it over the scallops, then sprinkle on the breadcrumbs and the pinch of salt.
Put the pan under the broiler, and keep a close eye on them: broilers seem to vary a lot in their intensity. Bay scallops, after all, do not really need cooking; here the point is to get the butter to melt and the breadcrumbs to turn golden brown. Move the pan around under the heat if need be so the topping browns evenly.
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