They are the best scallops in the world, and for a brief period every winter, if you are lucky, you can find them.
I wait for these beauties all year. From November to March, New England bay scallops are in season, and the best ones from Nantucket are a seafood lovers delight. They are closely protected, carefully harvested, quite expensive, and passionately sought after!
The terroir determines the flavor
Like oysters, bay scallops pick up their flavor from their surrounding cold waters and their particular ecosystems, and throughout New England, the unique terroir of the area means their flavor varies by location. Bay scallops from Nantucket Island are considered world-wide to be the best bay scallops of all ––and I agree totally––so good these delicacies can be eaten raw. The best, but I’d certainly not turn my back on a Cape Cod or even New Hampshire bay! Usually, all of these are hard to track down, and I hound my fish monger each year to get them in!
Some years, the harvest is a long one stretching through to March. Other years, most of the harvest stops once Nantucket Bay freezes over, and it’s not uncommon for everything to stop in January. They are carefully regulated also according to air temperature, which cannot be colder than the water. They are harvested by fishermen using hand dredges, and immediately shucked by hand. They are much smaller than sea scallops, so one can imagine the labor this takes, and thus the expense.
In addition to being carefully managed for sustainability, bay scallops here are never processed with preservatives, although off season you can sometimes find them frozen from the fishing companies. In my opinion, freezing for less than two months is OK, but beyond that there is a change in the texture and definitely in flavor. Fresh is always best, even if it means you have to wait all year to have them again.
Sweet, tender, buttery, there is nothing like them in the world, but they are expensive. They are best cooked simply so their flavor shines through. Lightly sautéed in butter and added to an omelet is perfect. A quick broil with lightly buttered breadcrumbs, also delicious, as is sautéed to top a risotto. My mom loved them baked with a little cream and a crispy topping. One of my favorite ways to cook them is to sauté lightly with a bit of garlic, white wine, a little lemon and parsley, and served over pasta of some sort.
This week, I found some delicious red lentil pasta which was perfect for this dish, but you can use any favorite pasta. My supplier had Cape Cod scallops rather than Nantuckets, but they were still divine! I used the coconut milk to keep this dairy free, but you can use a local heavy cream if you like.
If you cannot find New England bay scallops, please do not substitute with the bays you will find in most markets; they are from China, have absolutely no flavor, have been frozen for who knows how long, are as tough as pencil erasers, and are raised in questionable circumstances. Indeed, they were banned for many years because of contamination. I was surprised to see them in the markets again.
Rather, substitute with wild harvested local sea scallops, just cut them in half or quarters if you want them smaller. This dish is really tasty, really easy, and will be done in the time it takes to make the pasta!
New England Bay Scallops with Penne
- 8 oz. red lentil or other penne
- 1 tbsp. olive oil, or so
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
- 4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 pound New England bay scallops
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- Zest of one lemon
- ¾ cup full fat coconut milk or heavy cream
- 2 tbsp. flat-leafed Italian parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Parmesan cheese or toasted breadcrumbs to top
Remove any large muscles from the scallops. The small ones will become tender once cooked. Pat them dry, and set aside.
Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and set your timer to about a minute less than the recommended time.
Heat a large skillet over medium high and add the olive oil and 1 tbsp. of the butter. Add the mushrooms, and sauté just until soft. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add a bit more oil to the pan along with the scallops. After a minute, sprinkle the garlic on top and add the second tablespoon of butter. Turn the scallops and cook another two minutes, keeping them moving. You want a little brown, but not a hard sear or you will probably overcook them.
Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up all the brown. Add the lemon juice and zest (start with one tablespoon of the juice), the coconut milk, and stir in the parsley, reserving a bit for garnish.
Remove the pasta from the pot using a spider or slotted spoon and transfer directly to the scallops, and add the mushrooms back. Combine well, add salt and pepper and taste. Correct and add more lemon juice if you like. If you want more of a sauce, add a little past water.
Plate and top with toasted breadcrumbs or Parmesan. I like it both ways, but I had the toasted breadcrumbs on hand.
In a small skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 cup panko or other dried breadcrumbs, 2 tbsp. butter, 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika. Keep the crumbs moving until they are lightly toasted. Remove from the pan and let cool. I like to make my own breadcrumbs if I don’t have panko in the house. You can also add a couple of very finely minced garlic to this as well.
You can use all shiitake mushrooms or other favorite mushrooms for this dish and it is still delicious! I’d add a bit of flaked seaweed to add a little taste of the sea.
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