Geeking Out on Scallops

This week and next, I'm on vacation, but I've got a handful of helpful and savvy kitchen elves pitching in to keep the blog engine running. Today's treat comes from Julia Beizer, food and dining producer at washingtonpost.com.

"So you're going to try a real scallop, huh?" says fishmonger Scott Weinstein after I introduce myself at the District's BlackSalt fish market last Saturday. I had called Weinstein the day before with a simple scallop question and he unloaded a world of fish geekdom on why my grocery store scallops probably weren't cutting it.



Julia's scallops, prepared three ways. (Julia Beizer)

I've been geeking out about the mollusks myself lately. For the past several months, I haven't been able to resist the little guys whenever I see them in the seafood case, glistening like plump, white hockey pucks. Since my husband doesn't share my obsession, I indulge with a single woman's dinner of seared sea scallops, sauteed vegetables and a hefty glass of wine any time he's not around.

According to Weinstein, those fat, milky creatures from the supermarket may not have been as good as they looked. Whether you're buying small scallops (bay) or big scallops (sea), the real difference in flavor and freshness is the way they're handled after they leave the water, he says. Dry-packed scallops are shucked and shipped without chemical additives; processed scallops can be soaked with solutions like sodium tripolyphosphate. The chemical isn't likely to hurt you, it'll just add useless, scallop-expanding water to your mollusk. "When you buy those, you're just paying for water," says Weinstein. It's not easy to tell the difference just by looking, so he advises shoppers to visit a reputable fish merchant and ask lots of questions.

You'd expect the fishmonger at an upscale seafood market to say as much, so when Weinstein challenged me to check out some of the dayboat scallops he had coming in the next day, I gamely drove over to get some.

The scallops were pinker and creamier in color than the ones in my local grocer. As Weinstein suggested, I let the scallops warm up to room temperature before cooking and then prepared a half dozen three different ways. I topped one pair with a quick Mediterranean salsa made of capers, toasted pine nuts, parsley, tomato and lemon juice. Another duo sat on a wintry bed of bacon strips and sauteed onions, mushrooms and kale. I prepared the third set using this recipe for Curry-Dusted Scallops With Pea Puree, an attractive dish that wowed my family at our non-traditional Thanksgiving seafood fest.

Once cooked, Weinstein's scallops were meatier in texture and deeper in flavor than those I've picked up on sale at the supermarket. (Don't shun me, foodies! You know you've fallen for a good deal, too.) The omnipresent scallop scent was also stronger after cooking, but that could perhaps be attributed to the fact that I didn't use Food section staffer Bonnie Benwick's handy scallop-smell tip that has worked so well for me in the past. I've been mulling cider all week to ameliorate the stench.

But a little discomfort was worth it. The half dozen proved to be the perfect treat before my husband and I made the long trip up to a stadium in Baltimore to watch the Redskins suffer a terrible defeat in below-freezing weather. He has his little pleasures; I have mine.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 12, 2008; 7:45 AM ET Seafood
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Dry-packed scallops are shucked and shipped without chemical additives; processed scallops can be soaked with solutions like sodium tripolyphosphate. The chemical isn't likely to hurt you, it'll just add useless, scallop-expanding water to your mollusk. "When you buy those, you're just paying for water," says Weinstein.

I bet this is why i cannot stand scallops. My hubby loves them and had actually deep fried some very small pieces for me to try. I did and thought they were GREAT. Grabbed a whole scallop, bit into it and the liquid was waaaaaay to much. haven't tried one since. yuck

Posted by: nall92 | December 12, 2008 10:19 AM

"seared sea scallops, sauteed vegetables and a hefty glass of wine"

Yum!

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 12, 2008 11:36 AM

Scallops are great. It's good to learn the difference between the good ones, and the solution-soaked not-so-good ones. However, live Maine lobster is $7 per pound at my local grocery store, and I'm going with that tonight.

Posted by: davemarks | December 12, 2008 3:01 PM

I too discovered what real scallops are supposed to taste like after buying them at Black's Salt Fish Market. I'd been buying the supermarket ones when on sale and couldn't understand why I could never sear them as they are done at most restaurants with a bit of caramelization or even grill marks. Even when cooked in my black frying pan all this liquid oozed out and they always ended up steaming and not browning.

I'd taken a cooking class once at Company's Coming in Cleveland Park and the instructor said that she buys her seafood at Black's Salt (Peapod or Whole Foods Shopper here!), which at the time was way out of the way for me. But when my work location changed to Tysons last spring I stopped in and got some seafood education on my way home one day from their very knowledgeable and friendly chef/fish monger. Now I have an understanding of what that term really means.

I grilled those scallops using the recipe from the cooking class and YAHTZEE! That was the homecooked scallop I've been waiting for! They were dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette that had a bit of sugar in it and I couldn't have been more pleased, esp. because we had an impromptu dinner guest that night. The scallops were so sweet and succulent; no liquid exuded. Now I know why cookbooks and food shows are always talking about "have your fish monger blah, blah blah." Now I have a fish monger too!

Posted by: otabenga | December 16, 2008 11:41 AM

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