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Those Upscale Scallops

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking at upscale restaurant menus these days, you’d think there was no longer any such thing as plain old scallops. It seems like everyone feels obliged to include information about where the scallops come from and how they were harvested. Some menus get very specific, with entries like “So-and-So Island Diver Scallops,” but the most common term of all is “day-boat” scallops.

One logically might think that the “day-boat” label means the scallops come from boats that make a fishing trip out and back within a single day, presumably a sign of extra freshness. But that’s seldom the case. Instead, says Michael Cigliano of the wholesale division of Santa Monica Seafood, “day-boat” has become the menu equivalent of what are more accurately known in the seafood business as “dry-pack” or “chemical-free” scallops, as opposed to the “dipped” or “soaked” variety.

Apart from a small amount taken in the North Pacific, large scallops in our market come from New England, though the North Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) is found from the mid-Atlantic to Newfoundland, Canada. In the past, much of the commercial catch has come from the Georges Bank east of Massachusetts, but most of these grounds are closed to help cod and other stressed fish stocks recover. Most of the New England catch now comes from closer to shore near Cape Cod and in the Gulf of Maine. Winter is prime season for fresh sea scallops, with most of the catch coming from November to mid-April.

Like many other foods, scallop meats destined for commercial freezing are typically treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), an additive widely used in the frozen-food industry. When used in small concentrations, STP helps bind the natural water content of the food to the protein, keeping the water content more or less intact through freezing and thawing and preventing “drip loss.”

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Though STP and similar phosphates were mainly intended for use with frozen foods, scallop processors learned long ago that soaking fresh scallops in relatively strong STP solutions could increase their weight by 25% or more, as they absorb and hold extra water. Predictably, this dilutes the scallop flavor, and most top chefs and other discerning buyers have always insisted on untreated, “dry-packed” scallops.

Responding to complaints that buyers were paying scallop prices for water, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struggled with the phosphate issue for several years and considered outlawing any use of STP on fresh scallops. However, seeing the difficulty of enforcing such a ban, the agency and the scallop industry came to an agreement. Under rules adopted in the early 1990s, any scallop meats that exceed 80% water by weight (the upper limit of the natural range) can be sold only under a separate category of “scallop product-water added.”

This rule has effectively split the fresh scallop market into two channels, one for premium natural or “dry-pack” scallops, the other for less expensive scallops typically soaked to the maximum allowable stage. Wholesalers and retailers choose which part of the market they will work in or cater to both.

Of the two tons or so of scallops that Santa Monica Seafood brings in each week during the season, Cigliano estimates that half are dry-pack, which he sells mainly to white-tablecloth restaurants and in Santa Monica Seafood’s retail stores. Dry-pack commands prices as much as 40% higher than the soaked variety, which are popular with more modestly priced eateries.

There are some true day-boat scallops on the market, mostly taken by divers, rather than by trawling. Michael Cimarusti, executive chef of Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles, buys exclusively from a small supplier in Maine who sends him gallon tubs of diver-harvested scallop meats “so fresh they still move.”

Scallops this fresh are ideal for eating raw or very lightly seared, as in the recipe for seared scallops with scallop tartare. If you want the freshest possible scallops, you can sometimes find them live in the shell in downtown Los Angeles’ fish markets, such as Los Angeles Fish Co.

Diver scallops represent only a tiny fraction of the total scallop catch; the rest is taken by trawling. San Francisco wholesaler Paul Johnson, seafood supplier to many of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, estimates that less than 1% of the New England trawl scallop catch is actually taken on boats with trip lengths of one day or less.

“There are only a few days at the beginning of the season that it’s economically feasible to bring in a single day’s load,” says Johnson. “But there’s nothing wrong with scallops that are two or three days old.”

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As long as “day-boat” strikes restaurateurs and diners as a more attractive selling term than “dry-pack,” the former is likely to remain the more common menu term, even when the latter is more accurate. It’s a stretch of the truth we can probably all live with.

When buying scallops, Johnson advises looking for meats that vary in size and color through shades of ivory to pale tan; too uniform a white color can indicate excessive soaking. Dry-pack scallops may be slightly sticky to the touch and typically have a fairly strong briny, seaweed-like aroma, even suggesting sour milk. This is fine as long as they do not smell fishy or of ammonia. To preserve flavor, avoid washing scallops except for a quick rinse to remove grit and debris, if necessary.

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* Water Grill, 544 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 891-0900.

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* Santa Monica Seafood, 1205 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 393-5244; 1700 N. Main St., Orange, (714) 921-2632; 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862. Also https://www.santamonicaseafood.com.

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* Los Angeles Fish Co., 420 Stanford Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 489-4236.

Harlow is author of “West Coast Seafood” (Sasquatch Books, $23.95).

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Scallops and Julienne Vegetables in Aromatic Vegetable Broth (Scallops a la Nage)

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

The vegetable broth, variously known as court bouillon or nage, may be made ahead of time; refrigerate if keeping for more than a few hours. Use within a week for the best flavor or freeze for longer storage.

1 leek

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1 bulb fennel

4 cups water

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

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1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 heaping teaspoon coriander seeds

1 scant teaspoon white peppercorns

2 carrots

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2 stalks celery

3/4 to 1 pound sea scallops, sliced horizontally into 1/4-inch-

thick discs

4 to 6 tablespoons butter

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Fennel sprigs, for garnish

Cut off the root end of the leek and cut the white part into 2-inch sections; set aside. Separate the white bulb of the fennel from the branching, leafy tops; set aside some leafy sprigs for garnish if you like. Wash the leek and fennel tops, slice roughly and combine in a saucepan with the water, wine, vinegar, salt, coriander seeds and peppercorns. Slice 1 of the carrots and the celery and add them to the pan. Bring everything to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

Inspect the scallops; on the shorter side of each you will probably find a small patch of whiter muscle with a denser, more fibrous texture than the rest. Trim these pieces and add to the saucepan.

Meanwhile, split the leek bottoms lengthwise and cut them into thin strips and rinse them in a deep bowl of water. Quarter the fennel lengthwise, cut the quarters into 2-inch lengths, and cut them into very thin strips. Scrub or peel the carrot and cut it into fine 2-inch thin strips. Check the remaining celery stalk for stringy outer fibers and remove if necessary; cut the celery into fine 2-inch thin strips.

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Strain the vegetable stock and return it to the saucepan. Add the vegetables and simmer until just tender, about 5 minutes. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon to warm pasta bowls or deep plates. Taste the broth and correct the seasoning; add the scallops and cook just until heated through, about 30 seconds (you may have to do this in batches depending on the diameter of your pan). Transfer the scallops to the bowls. Pour the broth into a large measuring pitcher and measure 1/2 cup per serving back into the saucepan; reserve the rest for another use. Bring the broth to a boil, then remove from the heat and swirl in the butter. Spoon the sauce over the scallops and vegetables and serve immediately. Add the fennel sprigs for garnish, if you like.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 98 calories; 290 mg sodium; 27 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.83 gram fiber.

Seared Scallops With Scallop Tartare

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

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At the Water Grill, this is also topped with a few slices of black truffle, with truffle trimmings added to the tartare. Look for a light-colored soy sauce such as the Japanese usukuchi variety.

PAPRIKA OIL

1/4 cup grape seed or mild olive oil

1 heaping teaspoon paprika

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Heat the oil in a small saucepan just until warm, then stir in the paprika. Cover it and let stand it several hours to overnight, then decant the oil into a small bottle and cover tightly.

SCALLOPS

1/2 pound large sea scallops (4 to 6)

2 teaspoons minced shallot or red onion, rinsed in a strainer

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1 teaspoon minced green onion

Dash dried red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon best-quality soy sauce

About 1 cup peanut or other mild vegetable oil

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6 very thin slices lotus root

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Paprika oil, for garnish, optional

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Inspect the scallops; on the shorter side of each you will probably find a small patch of whiter muscle with a denser, more fibrous texture than the rest. Trim and discard these pieces or save them in the freezer for seafood stock. Choose enough large scallops to yield 6 uniform 1/4-inch slices and set the slices aside. Mince the remaining scallops and odd pieces by hand so the largest bits are less than 1/4 inch in size. Combine with the shallot, green onion, pepper flakes and soy sauce. (This can be prepared to this point several hours ahead of serving.)

Place a mound or cylinder of the scallop tartare in the center of each plate. Heat a wok or medium skillet over medium-high heat and add oil to a depth of at least 3/4 inch. Heat the oil until a lotus slice sizzles immediately on contact, then fry the lotus slices until light golden brown and crisp, about 1 minute. Remove with a skimmer and drain. Pour the oil out of the pan (it can be saved for other cooking uses), wipe out any excess clinging to the pan, and return the pan to the heat.

Season the scallop slices lightly with salt and pepper. Add them to the pan, and cook until seared on both sides and flecked with golden brown, about 30 seconds per side. Lay a lotus chip, then a seared scallop slice on top of each serving of tartare. Garnish the plates with a drizzle of Paprika Oil, if desired.

6 appetizer servings. Each serving: 117 calories; 185 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.43 gram fiber.

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