What are they?
Scallops are bi-valve molluscs, easily recognisable by their pretty radially ribbed shells which (although this is out of fashion at the moment) can used for presentation; the shells are also useful for cooking and serving other small fish dishes, and there was a time when they were widely used as ash trays...They have a subtle, sweetish flavour and very dense pearly-white flesh.
Where do they come from?
Scallops are fished around the Irish coast especially in winter and spring. As itemised on some top restaurant menus, the most desirable (and most expensive) are ‘hand dived’, ie they are picked by hand by individual scuba divers, which is very ecologically correct as it is so selective and does not cause damage to the underwater environment. Only the best are selected and it is also slow work, hence the higher price.
Where can I get them?
They are easily available available from fishmongers, both in and out of the shell. ‘Queenies’ are the small scallops most widely available (often sold shelled and frozen), and the prime king scallops have a beautiful orange-red ‘coral’ (roe), which is at its brightest and best in winter and early spring, and should be left intact; it is widely regarded as a great delicacy although, sadly, modern Irish chefs do not always see it that way and often discard the coral entirely.
What can I do with them?
If buying scallops in the shell, choose those that are tightly closed and feel heavy for their size. To open, warm them a little until the shells open naturally, then remove the black part and gristly fibre.
Scallops are widely used in both first course and main course dishes but, because of their dense flesh, are best suited to starters and light salad dishes.
They have an affinity with a number of ingredients, including bacon, mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes, and are best cooked very briefly (whole or sliced) in a hot pan with a little butter or oil; do not overcook as they quickly become rubbery and lose their fresh flavour and beautiful translucent appearance. They can also be sliced very thinly and eaten raw (in a mushroom salad, perhaps).
Traditional dishes like Coquille Saint Jacques (with mashed potato and cheese sauce) are currently out of favour, but they do have the advantage of offering a more balanced combination which offsets the natural heaviness of a large quantity of scallops, so perhaps should not be dismissed out of hand.
Recipe for Seared Scallops with Black Pudding and Crispy Bacon
Grainy Clonakilty black pudding from West Cork has become a favourite accompaniment for scallops in recent years, and is delicious served with bacon and classic beurre blanc sauce.
Click for recipe