As winter approaches, the larger species of fish--tuna, swordfish, grouper and shark--migrate to the warmth of the Southern Hemisphere. Other finfish head for deeper waters and lie low while the waves crash on the shores.
But the wild waves are just a cover for the greatest treasures of the deep: the mollusk families of clams, mussels, oysters and scallops. Cold winter waters produce the most succulent shellfish, plump from summer and autumn feeding. The cold also helps preserve them after harvesting. In warmer weather, the delicate creatures lose moisture during the trip from ocean floor to fish market. Winter’s frigid temperatures protect their beauty.
The hard-shell clam family (Mercenaria mercenaria) of the East Coast, which is sold according to size, includes the young 3-year-old littlenecks, 4-year-old topnecks, 5-year-old cherrystones and the mature quahogs, which are primarily used for chowders. West Coast butter clams, giant geoducks and ore recent transplants, including the Manila clam, are also at their best now.
The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) , native to the North Atlantic, has also been introduced into West Coast waters to supplement the supply of the native Pacific variety M. Californianus. Mussels begin their lives as free-swimming spats. Eventually they attach themselves to rocks by means of a protein, related to silk, which hardens on contact with water. This attachment, called a byssus or beard, is easily removed from the mussel before serving.
The most important member of the East Coast oyster family is the species Crassostrea Virginica . The oysters are usually marketed according to the location of their breeding and harvesting, such as Bluepoint, Chatham or Malpeque.
Many terrific oysters also come from the Northern Pacific, the native species being Ostrea Lurida, which we know as Olympia, Yaquina or Willapa oysters. The larger Pacific oyster (Crassostrea Gigas) was introduced from Japan, while the flat plate oyster, Ostrea Edulis, is the famous Belon oyster of France.
The scallop is the most revered of the mollusk family for its sweet, delicate meat. Europeans are also fond of the orange-colored “coral” or roe. Unlike clams, mussels and oysters, scallops can swim. They expel water by rapidly opening and closing their shells, and thus they can migrate between feeding and breeding grounds. Because the shells do not close tight, however, they spoil quickly out of water, so they are shucked on the boat or dock and immediately iced to preserve their flavor.
More than 400 varieties of scallop live in the seas, but only half a dozen occur in sufficient quantities to allow commercial harvesting and distribution beyond their native environment.
The bay or cape scallop (Argopecten Irradians) is the most renowned because of its sweet and resilient texture. It is native to the small inlets of the Northeast, with a season from September to April. The demand for this scallop is enormous and the supply is quickly used up. Catch this treasure now or you’ll have to wait until next autumn. Select tiny scallops that are creamy in color, but not white.
The Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) is the most abundant and widely distributed. It is harvested from depths up to 900 feet, and individuals are commonly as large as five inches across the shell. They are delicate in flavor but slightly softer in texture than bay scallops. Select the more translucent ones with a shiny coat.
The Pacific rock scallop (Hinnites giganteus) is quite large and occurs from Baja to Alaska, the better ones coming from the colder northern waters. The weather-vane scallop (Patinopecten Caurinus) is a delicacy from the Gulf of Alaska. The calico (Argopecten gibbus) occurs from Brazil to the Carolinas and the Gulf but is considered the least palatable because it is firmer and less sweet in flavor. Select calicos that are white with a dull coat.
Unscrupulous merchants will sometimes sell calicos as bay scallops. You can tell calicos by their slightly “cooked” appearance--the result of the high temperature steaming required to open their shells. Bays are almost always hand-shucked and remain translucent.
Scallops will absorb water, increasing their weight and diluting their natural flavor. Phosphate washes are used by some harvesters to increase the weight and whiten the color. Avoid dull, white and mushy specimens. The smell should be sweet and briny like the sea--not sour and ammonia- or iodine-scented.
Clean scallops by removing the side membrane or foot, if still attached, which once held the scallop to the shell. This foot is tough and chewy when cooked and distracts from the glorious, resilient scallop texture. Remove any splintered pieces of shell. Wash under running cold water only if dirty--water will diminish the delicate flavor.
Scallops cook very quickly. Sear bay scallops over high heat to retain all that wonderful flavor, cooking only two or three minutes until just about done. Sea scallops are also seared, but then the heat is lowered for an additional minute or two to penetrate the scallops.
Remember, scallops will continue to cook even after being removed from the heat. For best results, take them off the flame just before you think they will be done, transfer them immediately to the dish and serve.
1 small taro root or potato, peeled and finely julienned
Canola or corn oil
1/2 cup 2-inch snipped fresh chives
1 cup grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon Ginger Puree, optional
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon grated grapefruit zest
Freshly ground white pepper
1 Belgian endive, cut 1/8-inch thick across length
1/2 small head radicchio, julienned 1/8-inch thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds large sea scallops, cleaned
Rinse taro under cold running water until water runs clear. Drain well, then pat dry.
Heat about 2 inches oil to 375 degrees in medium skillet. Add taro and fry until golden, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in low-temperature oven. Fry chives in same manner and mix with taro in bowl.
Combine grapefruit juice and Ginger Puree in medium saucepan. Bring to simmer over high heat, then cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 6 minutes. Add whipping cream and grated zests and cook until thickened to coat back of spoon, about 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Strain mixture into another saucepan and return to simmer. Add endive and radicchio, cooking until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Heat olive oil over high heat in large non-stick skillet. Add scallops and cook until browned and well seared, about 2 minutes. Turn over and finish cooking until slightly firm, about 1 minute, depending on size. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Spoon sauce in center of warm plates. Position scallops in center. Top with taro and chives. Makes 4 servings.
For leaner version, to help with New Year’s resolutions, omit cream to make wonderful scallop and grapefruit salad. When cooking grapefruit juice and Ginger Puree, reduce mixture to 1/4 cup. Remove from heat and strain into bowl. Whisk in 1/2 cup olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add citrus zests and additional 1/4 cup snipped chives. Arrange endive and radicchio leaves in center of serving plates. Cook scallops according to recipe and arrange across endive and radicchio. Spoon sauce over and top with fried taro and chives.
1 1/2 cups peeled and diced ginger root
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
Combine ginger root, lemon juice and sugar in small saucepan. Bring to simmer over high heat and cook about 30 minutes or until tender. Transfer to food processor, pureeing until smooth. Strain. Cover and refrigerate. Makes 1 cup.