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Nature Nut: You might clap for the wide variety of scallops

February 10, 2019

Dave was the leader of a group of divers I had connected with while on a 1980 sabbatical in San Diego.

On one of our dive trips, we crossed the border and drove to Ensenada, Mexico, diving the rocky shores in search of lunch. Dave had told us when you see a shell embedded in the rocks, with the lower of its two halves hanging open, sneak up on it and stick your knife in before it closes.

If successful, he told us, just pry the lower shell half off the wall, use the knife to peel the muscle out, and eat away, even while underwater. No need to add salt to the tender muscle, as the ocean water does that.

I think this was my first experience eating scallops. The second, I recall, came years later at Michaels restaurant. Recently I bought a pound of scallops at the grand opening sale of a new Rochester grocer. I got 10 whitish-yellow adductor muscles of these shellfish, found off all the coasts of the U.S.

As I was recently eating a couple of those 2-inch wide scallops, I thought about how tender the meat was. Then I gave thought to another mollusk I had also harvested in California — abalone, which have only one shell compared to the two halves of the scallops.

Abalone have a much tougher meat that needs to be beaten with a serrated wooden tenderizer, or with a hammer, as my brother and I did back in 1970.

Thinking about abalones and scallops made me realize the difference was the strong muscle needed to keep the abalone secured to rocky surfaces in very rough waters. The scallop didn’t need such strength, growing one of its shell halves right into the rock, or just lying on the seafloor.

Researching more about scallops, I learned the ones I ate in Mexico were a less common variety called rock scallops. The ones I got at the local outlet recently were undoubtedly sea scallops. The Atlantic coast is one of the most productive areas for them.

Unlike rock scallops, sea scallops are not usually attached to anything and can propel themselves by “clapping” their shells, sometimes to avoid predators like starfish. Like many shellfish, scallops feed by filtering plankton out of the water. And, besides the edible muscle, scallop reproductive organs, called roe, are also edible unless taken from polluted waters.

Another variety, bay scallops, are smaller than sea or rock scallops, less than an inch across. They are typically found closer to coastlines in bays and estuaries. I picked up a few each of both bay and sea scallops at another local outlet and was amazed at the size difference. One might get a hundred bay scallops when buying a pound, but only 10 to 20 in a pound of sea scallops.

When buying this second batch of scallops, I asked if they were “wet” or “dry,” after reading that scallops are often soaked in a brine solution to make them heavier by absorbing water. I noted that my “wet” bay scallops were in a milky colored liquid, and the dry sea variety in clearer water.

Most scallops are harvested by fishermen with trawler boats that drag large nets along the bottom in deep water. I watched one YouTube video of this, and was amazed to see them dredge hundreds of scallops up in one net, with a daily take of about 600 pounds being their goal.

Unfortunately, this type of fishing raises havoc with the sea-floor habitat, also resulting in bycatch of nontargeted species. British author and marine biologist Callum Roberts compares dredging for scallops to “cutting down a rainforest to catch a parrot.”

More ecologically friendly harvesting is done by divers who pick only the large desirable scallops, leaving smaller ones for another year. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of scallops sold are harvested by divers, and it is difficult to verify they are, unless bought directly from a scallop diving operator.

I’ve decided to remove scallops from my menu, since I don’t know how they were harvested, also because they seem more rich tasting and tender than I prefer. But if you haven’t tried scallops, you may want to get some and decide for yourself.

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