Scallops are the pearls of marine bivalve mollusks, a species of saltwater clams that have survived in the worlds oceans for more than 200 million years thanks to nature’s grand design. Equipped with a symmetrical smooth grooved surfaced shell with a flexible hinge, a powerful adductor muscle, and multiple valves which open and close facilitating the scallop’s ability to “dance” freely and rapidly across the ocean floor avoiding its primary predator, the starfish, and going on to live for up to twenty years.
The beauty of the scallop’s shell alone has inspired artists, philosophers, poets, and soothsayers throughout the ages in epic poems, religious iconography, architectural design, and of course sculpture and painting. Sandro Botticelli’s painting of The Birth of Venus, painted in 1482, is the most universally recognized depiction of the scallop shell with Venus poised on the edge of the shell. The painting is an allegorical reference to antiquity, Venus symbolizing the birth of love and spiritual beauty as the force of life. The painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence.
It somehow seems presumptuous to even contemplate eating these magnificent creatures of nature, but that is fodder for yet another conversation.
The scallop’s adductor muscle is what we call scallops for culinary applications today. They are very tender with a silky smooth texture and a sublime flavor of sea water. They are eaten both raw and cooked. Dry Packed Scallops, meaning additive free, such as North Atlantic wild scallops or Japanese sushi or sashimi grade scallops are considered the best to seek out when shopping. China and Russia are the largest suppliers of scallops, although they are either farmed or dredge fished and usually sold as Wet Packed, meaning treated with tripolyphosphate as a preservative.
Cooking scallops is very straight forward. You have probably paid dearly for these treasures from the sea so treating them with restraint will produce the best possible results. A quick searing is all there is to it, followed by a deglazing of the pan with lemon juice, a dry white wine, or clear spirits.
The recipe that follows adheres to the tried and true wisdom of preserving the delicate flavor and silky texture of the scallops as if they were just plucked out of their shells.
Seared Scallops with Capers: serves 4
- 12 plump north Atlantic scallops (fresh or flash frozen)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- sea salt
- freshly ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons capers, well rinsed
- 3 tablespoons dry vermouth (dry white wine or water)
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- snow pea sprouts or watercress
- flaked sea salt (Maldon smoked sea salt pictured)
Bring the scallops to room temperature and pat dry with paper towels just before cooking. Season the tops of the scallops very sparingly with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Select a well seasoned (or non stick) sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Add the olive oil to the pan and when the oil slides easily in the pan add the scallops seasoned side down into the pan. Cook for 1 ½ minutes. Lift a scallop to see if the scallop is lightly browned. If not raise the heat and continue to cook for another 30 seconds. Adjust the heat accordingly and turn the scallops over and seer for 1 ½ minutes. The scallops need not be browned on the underside as you want the flesh of the scallops to be rare in the center. Transfer the scallops to a platter, cover loosely with parchment and set aside while you deglaze the pan.
Remove excess oil and any debris from the pan using a paper towel. Raise the heat slightly and add the butter. When the butter begins to foam add the capers to the pan and sauté for 1 minute while continuously swirling the pan. Add the Vermouth and swirl the pan to mix the ingredients together. Continue to cook until the vermouth is reduced by half. Add the lemon juice and cook another minute while continuously swirling the pan. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the scallops back to the pan. Spoon the sauce over the scallops to warm them and then promptly transfer the scallops to individual serving plates lined with a bed of snow pea sprouts. Spoon sauce over each serving, topping the scallops with the capers. Have flaked sea salt on the table for additional seasoning.