Cooking Bay Scallops

Dinner, In Season, Recipes
on October 1, 2008
Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn

From spring through fall, the charming and tiny island of Nantucket is a tourist paradise, packed to the gills with beachgoers, cyclists and urban refugees from nearby Boston and New York. Come Nov. 1, the crowds disappear and the ferries connecting the island to Massachusetts’s mainland are virtually deserted, but the waters off Nantucket are busier than ever. Nov. 1 is the opening of scallop season, which runs through the end of March, and no scallop found anywhere in the world is more highly prized than the unique Nantucket Bay Scallop. Roughly twice the size of the average bay scallop (30 to 40 vs. 60 to 100 per pound) and half the size of larger sea scallops, this shellfish offers the perfect combination of texture and sweetness, so much so that many fans eat them raw right out of the shells.

“Because they are so sweet and delicate they really stand alone and are great for sashimi, ceviche or tartare preparations,” says Neil Patrick Hudson, former chef at Nantucket’s most famous luxury hotel, the White Elephant. Hudson has become a culinary champion of the tiny crustacean since moving to Nantucket seven years ago. When Hudson gets off work he throws on waders and heads out in the bay himself, rake in hand, to catch his own scallops for personal consumption, up to the residents’ five bushel annual limit. He likes them raw with black pepper and lemon juice but suggests sautéing them very quickly.

“Once they hit the already hot pan, they are almost done. Don’t move them, and in literally 30 seconds when you have caramelized one side, they are ready. You don’t really want to cook them so much as sear them so they are still opaque in the middle.”

Nantucket restaurants consume almost the entire harvest at $20 to $25 a pound wholesale, and you will pay $40 to $50 a pound for the small quantity exported to the mainland. Fans think they are worth every penny.

Although there are many species, you’ll generally find two types of scallops in the market: Bay scallops and sea scallops. Bay scallops are the smaller of the two, measuring only ½ inch in diameter. They’re also sweeter and more expensive than sea scallops. Both types of scallops should be moist and sweet-smelling when purchased.

By Larry Olmsted, a food writer in Hartland Four Corners, Vt.