Off the Fork: The more the merroir

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Seared scallops with sweet peppers and apple cider.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Seared scallops with sweet peppers and apple cider.

To eat a fresh wild Peconic Bay scallop is to experience the miracle of merroir, a food that tastes like the soup of salt, sand, grass and mud it came from — flavors of honey, mushrooms and sea foam.

Bay scallops are one of this country’s finest wild foods. Living on the East End means we get to eat plenty of them, especially this year, when the season, which has just started and goes through March, is looking very good.

The supply of bay scallops is so strong, that the local seafood markets can’t hire enough shuckers to open all those bivalves. Prices are lower than last year. Last week, a pound of bay scallops on the North Fork cost about the same as a pound of skinless, boneless, organic chicken breast.

Peconic Bay scallops are a wild shellfish that is harvested in New York waters by baymen in small boats. They are much smaller and sweeter than sea scallops, and must be opened and eaten within a day of being caught.

Scallops should be purchased dry. Never buy scallops sitting in a milky-colored liquid. They will not brown, and you may notice an off-flavor from a preservative that creates that white bath — not the kind of merroir you want.

The best way to cook bay scallops is quickly at high heat. Even if they are not breaded, they develop a delicious brown crust that enhances their flavor.

Bay scallops are a fall treat from our waters, and the sweet and savory flavor of a scallop pairs well with fall treats from the land. For this dish, I made a sauce of sweet peppers and reduced apple cider that cooks separately, and lets the scallops own enchanting flavor come through. I’ve used cider from two North Fork farms, Briermere and Wickham’s in this dish. Both are very good.

Seared scallops with sweet peppers and apple cider

Serves 2

1 cup freshly-pressed apple cider

1 pound fresh Peconic Bay scallops

A pinch of salt

4 or 5 grinds of black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 ounces finely chopped red sweet peppers

2 sprigs of thyme

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup white wine

1. Reduce the cup of apple cider by cooking it down in an 8-inch stainless steel or enamel skillet until it is about ¼ cup. Set it aside, and wipe the pan dry.

2. Rinse the scallops very briefly, drain and pat them dry with a paper towel. Season with a little salt and pepper.

3. Heat another heavy skillet, preferably cast iron or steel over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil.

4. As soon as the oil begins to ripple, (before it smokes) add half of the scallops. The scallops should not touch to ensure that they brown evenly. One pound of scallops will cook in two batches in a 9-inch skillet. Do not cover the pan, or lower the heat.

5. Cook undisturbed for approximately 2 minutes, or until you see a brown edge under the scallops. Give the pan a good shake to roll them over on their sides.  Cook 1 more minute, and remove the scallops to a warm serving plate. Repeat steps 4 and 5 with the rest of the scallops.

6. Melt the butter in the skillet you reduced the apple cider in, and as it is melting, add the peppers and the thyme sprigs and cook over medium heat until the peppers start to soften.

7. Add the garlic and cook over medium heat a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant.

8. Add the wine, cook over high heat for 3 minutes to reduce the sauce.

9. Add the reduced apple cider and cook another few minutes to blend the flavors.

10. Remove the thyme sprigs, spoon the sauce over the scallops and serve.

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