Catch & Cook: Bay Scallops

Winter is a tough time to find fresh seafood but some formidable winds littered the local beaches in fresh, juicy bay scallops.

Sauteed scallop risotto is a phenomenal winter recipe.

Winter is a tough time to find fresh seafood. Usually I rely upon the contents of my chest freezer, carefully packed in vacuum-sealed bags, to get me through the lean cold-season months. Distant memories from successful fishing trips are sealed up in airtight bags, and these frozen fillets get me through the winter and provide inspiration for the new season to come. But, last week, in the middle of the winter, I stumbled upon an amazing fresh seafood bonanza. This was a heist of epic proportions. It was a landfall. Jackpot! A big winter storm rolled through the Northeast, packing some formidable winds with gusts up to 60 knots. It blew like stink for two straight days, resulting in fresh, juicy bay scallops littering the local beaches.

a powerful storm provided this jackpot of tasty bay scallops
A powerful storm with strong onshore winds provided this jackpot of tasty bay scallops.

Experience told me it was time to get out of bed early, beat the bird to the proverbial worm, and get down to the beach as fast as I could. Conditions were perfect for some serious scavenging.

Human beings, by nature, relied upon scavenging in our not-so-distant past, and I am not above grabbing an occasional free meal created by other creatures’ misfortunes. When “scavenging” involves gathering fresh shellfish that sells for $30 a pound, I embrace this primeval trait, and grab as much as I can.

Bay scallops, I believe, are the most delicious bounty our local waters have to offer. They are moist, succulent, sweet and tender. Their unique flavor explodes in your mouth with the consumption of every morsel. I will take a half-pound of bay scallops over four pounds of any other fish, crustacean or mollusk. Nothing trumps the mighty little bay scallop; they reign supreme above everything else in the sea…even lobster.

And, if you play your cards right, you can pluck them right off the beach after a major storm, if the conditions are just right.

shucked scallop

Last week, the conditions were just right. The heavy onshore winds pounded the beaches for two days. When I awoke at 5 am, I could hear the old storm window in my bedroom thumping and rattling, which told me the winds were still substantial – it was time to rise and shine. In military fashion, I was out of the house and at the beach right at first light. The seagulls were already awake, and they converged in an impressive flock, congregated at the base of a jetty. Gulls are a good sign when scavenging, just like when fishing. All those birds woke up early, like me, and they were all huddled tightly in one spot. Game on!

I could see scallop shells from the parking lot. I donned my neoprene waders, and then slipped on my dry top, sunglasses (to shield the blowing sand) and winter hat. I had no bucket, but like waders, trash bags are mandatory equipment in my truck. I grabbed two and slipped them into my pocket.

Finding Bay Scallops

Bay scallops depend upon healthy eelgrass for their survival, so finding such areas are key. Any bays, estuaries, harbors or open beaches with eelgrass are likely places to find them. In New England, bay scallops range from Cape Cod southward, with the largest concentrations found around Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. They can still be found and harvested in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but are not abundant.

When I got to the base of the jetty, after chasing away the seagulls I stood amazed. There was a bowl, perhaps 10 feet in diameter, that was chock-full of delicious bay scallops. This was Valhalla. I’d dreamed of this. Was this a dream? I actually pinched myself on the leg. Ouch… not a dream… holy moly… start shoving them in the bag!

I began working the perimeter of the pile. There were so many in one area that if I walked through it, I would have crushed dozens with each step. The first trash bag was full in 20 minutes. Even being selective and only plucking the biggest ones, I was loading up at an epic rate. The bag was so full, I had to cradle it from below as I hustled back to my truck, where I was spotted by a coffee-sipping bystander.

“Whatcha got?” He asked, peering out his car window.

“Scallop shells, tons of them. I sell them to a craft store.”

It was a crafty lie I had used before. I’m not sure if he bought it, but he remained seated in his car.

I unloaded the first bag in my truck and went back for round two. I wasn’t quite as selective with the second bag. The wind was howling, my eyes were watering, and with temperatures in the high 20s, I was getting cold. I frantically grabbed fistfuls at a time and shoved them into the trash bag. I already had enough, but there were so many and I couldn’t resist. They were all going to die anyway, so I figured I’d get some extras to share with the crew at the office. Bag number two was full in 15 minutes. I packed up my stuff, cranked up the heat in the truck and hit the road.

That night, it would take me 4 hours to shuck exactly 493 bay scallops. I had already given away 130, which gave me a grand total of 623 free scallops!

Freshly shucked bay scallops
Freshly shucked bay scallops

One of the reasons that bay scallops sell for close to $30 per pound is that they are tedious to shuck and there is a lot of waste. Only the abductor muscle is eaten and the rest gets discarded. After shucking 493 of them, I ended up with around 8 to 9 pounds of meat. My hands were raw, cold and blistering, but I had accumulated the mother lode of my favorite seafood. It was time to pig out.

As I’ve already said, bay scallops are delicious. They do not need any seasoning to enhance their flavor, so keep your recipes simple and avoid overpowering these delicate, tasty morsels. They are just fine the way they are, freshly plucked from the sea. Many people cherish them raw, but I believe they intensify in flavor when cooked. They have a high sugar content and develop a nice golden sear.

More About Bay Scallops

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Read our post for great tips covering everything from finding to shucking these delicious bi-valve mollusks.

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If you can’t procure your own fresh supply, I urge you to open up your wallet and shell out some significant cash the next time you see authentic bay scallops at a reputable fish market. Don’t fall for the fake imported imposters, which taste awful, and don’t confuse bay scallops with sea scallops, which are much larger. The real McCoys will run you at least $25 per pound, but they are well worth it. And, bay scallops are only commercially fished October through March, so get them while they last.

Golden Baked Scallops

Golden Baked Scallops

(Serves 2 to 4)
1 pound of shucked bay scallops
2-3 tablespoons melted butter
Lime juice
Salt & pepper
Parsley flakes
Ritz cracker crumbs (preferably the low-sodium ones)

This is perhaps my all-time favorite dish. It’s serious comfort food. I use this same recipe for a number of other seafood dishes as it’s a good way to highlight the true taste of fresh fish.

Dry off the scallops by rolling them around on a paper towel. Give them a small spritz of lime juice and sprinkle with black pepper and a pinch of sea salt.

Melt the butter in a measuring cup in the microwave (Tip: I place a coffee filter on top of the cup to deal with any splattering.)

Put the scallops in a ceramic baking dish. (Don’t use a metal pan – you’ll burn the crumbs!) Drizzle with melted butter, and then roll them around to coat them. Add a light dusting of finely ground Ritz cracker crumbs on top, and then drizzle on some more melted butter. Sprinkle on some dried parsley flakes. Next, add one more light coating of crumbs and a little more butter.

Fire them up in a preheated 475-degree oven – 8 to 12 minutes should do it. Pull them out as soon as the top is a light golden-brown.

Enjoy with a nice salad or steamed vegetables, and a dry white wine. So good!

Sautéed Scallops With Fresh Pasta or Risotto

Sautéed bay scallops over risotts

(Serves 2 to 4)
1 pound shucked bay scallops
2 tablespoons butter
Salt & pepper
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Lime juice

This is about as simple as it gets – unless you’re making the risotto, which can be a bit tricky. If you have slim culinary skills, go with fresh pasta.

Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel. Give them a spritz of lime juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Melt the butter and get the pan nice and hot until the butter just begins to brown. Toss in the scallops and spread them out evenly. Now, sit back and wait. Resist all temptations to touch, disturb, poke or prod them. After exactly two minutes, stir them around and shake up the pan. You will be amazed at how quickly they brown and caramelize. Keep them moving in the pan for about another 2 to 3 minutes. Don’t try to get each one evenly browned – it’s maddening. Just get a nice sear on one side and then keep them moving.

Remove from the pan and serve immediately, garnished with diced parsley. You can serve them atop risotto or fresh angel hair pasta tossed with good olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Or, serve them atop a salad, or just eat them as-is using toothpicks, as an appetizer.

This next recipe was sent to me by On The Water contributing writer Jon Pilcher. This past summer, I spent a night fishing with Jon in the canyons, where we were targeting swordfish. During the long, rather uneventful night, Jon began telling me stories of his time spent living on Nantucket (perhaps the bay scallop capital of the world) before he went back to school to become an emergency room doctor. Aside from running a restaurant on the island, Jon recounted how he used to commercially fish for bay scallops in the off-season, and he told me the scallops were often so thick he could get his limit with a dredge in no time at all. He also shared some his favorite recipes, including this one. It is a Yankee twist on the classic southern Po’ Boy sandwich, which Jon has given a clever name.

Nantucket Rich Boy Sandwich

3/4 pound fresh bay scallops
1/2 stick butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
1 wedge lemon
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 cup diced fresh tomatoes (optional)
2 fresh hoagie rolls

Combine the mayo, juice from the lemon wedge, and hot sauce. Refrigerate.

In a large frying pan, heat butter over medium heat until it foams, and then skim the foam off the top, which leaves you with clarified butter in the pan. Add olive oil and heat the pan until it begins to smoke. Add the scallops. You want them to sear, not boil! Stir periodically, and cook until well seared and caramelized. Remove and place on paper towels to drain.

Now, slice the hoagie rolls lengthwise. Toast under the broiler or on the top rack of a 450-degree oven for two minutes. Remove from the oven and apply the seasoned mayo inside the rolls. Stuff with scallops, top with lettuce and tomato, and enjoy!

So, there you have it. The next time a powerful storm brings heavy winds and waves to your local beach, get down there at first light and see what delicacies from the sea Mother Nature has provided. I have found whale bones, fishing lures and a number of other oddities while scavenging after a storm. Just be aware of any regulations that might infringe on a good scavenge and get a solid answer from the local authorities before you head out. The reality is that most shellfish that wash up after a storm will not survive, so I like to think “finders keepers.” I have asked our local shellfish constable, and he said they have no problem with people scavenging on the beach, but if you are in the water, you need a shellfish permit.

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2 on “Catch & Cook: Bay Scallops

  1. Matt Hurrauz

    Wow. I never knew this could happen. It reminds me of the “jubilees” folks on Mobile Bay enjoy.

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