Last year, I hiked the Jacobean route of the Camino with a couple of friends, following the path of St James up the coast of Portugal and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. My interests in walking the Camino were, I confess, not driven by any particular religiosity. Rather, it was driven by - dare I say it - greed ...
The prospect of a walk that placed scallop shells at the heart of its iconography, a culinary journey into the heart of one of the most exciting seafood cultures in the north Atlantic, was a journey I just had to experience. I wasn't disappointed. The whole of this coast turned out to be one long homage to fresh seafood.
Ask most seafood lovers what their favourite seafood is and, more often than not, the answer is scallops. There is simply nothing that matches their sweet succulent tenderness. As luck would have it, right now it's scallop season here in New Zealand. All around the New Zealand coastline you can find scallops lying on the seabed with the flat shell uppermost in sandy sheltered bays, from the low tide mark out to about 50m depth.
Understanding scallop anatomy is important if you want to enjoy them at their tender, succulent best.
The round, fleshy white heart of the scallop so revered by food connoisseurs all over the globe is, in fact, a powerful adductor muscle that propels the shellfish through the water from one place to the next. Sand-dwelling scallops are capable of rapidly swimming short distances, using jet propulsion created by repeatedly clapping their shells together using this strong muscle. If you look closely at a scallop, you will notice a small white muscle attached to the side of the large white round. This little muscle is commonly known as the catch muscle. You always want to remove this — it's what keeps the shell closed for long periods of time and, no matter what you do to it, it will always be tough. The reddish flap on the side is the roe, which is also sweet and delicious to eat. Imported frozen scallops are usually sold without the roe.
When it comes to cooking scallops, less is always more. For New Zealand scallops (a lot smaller than American ones) heat a knob of butter to nut brown, add seasoned scallops and cook for a minute on each side. Squeeze over lemon or lime juice, remove from the pan and rest for 2-3 minutes before eating. However, cook them too long and you may as well cut up a car tyre and try to eat that. Their melt-in-the-mouth texture transforms to toughest rubber.
Here are three simple ways to prepare scallops that show them at their sweetest and most succulent.
Fresh scallops make amazing ceviche. I prefer it without the roe but you can include them if you want. Otherwise, just freeze the roe for another use, they make a great addition to a seafood soup or pan-fried in butter with salt and pepper and finished with a squeeze of lime.
Ready in 10 minutes plus at least 2 hours marinating
Serves 8 as a starter
500g freshest scallops, orange roes removed if desired
½ cup fresh lime juice (or lemon juice)
¼ small red onion, very finely sliced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh chilli
1 spring onion, finely sliced
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely cubed
1 large avocado (firm but ripe), diced
2 Tbsp fresh chopped coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp lemon infused olive oil or use boutique extra virgin olive oil with the rind of ½ lemon, finely zested, added
Lime or lemon wedges
Slice each scallop horizontally in half across the grain. Combine with lime juice, tossing well to mix through. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 4 hours. Scallops will whiten and appear cooked. When ready to serve, drain and discard liquids. Add all other ingredients, season to taste and add 1 Tbsp of the lemon oil. Toss lightly to combine.
To serve, arrange a pile of ceviche salad in the middle of each plate and drizzle a little lemon-infused oil around the outside.
Scallop Prosciutto Rolls
On posh English pub menus you'll often see scallops paired with black pudding and cauliflower or quickly seared and served with slow-cooked pork belly. A sliver of salty sweet prosciutto wrapped around scallops and quickly cooked is another brilliant match of scallops and pork.
It's really important the oven is super-hot but if preferred, the scallops can be pan-fried for a minute on each side and a minute top and bottom. These can be assembled and chilled for up to 12 hours before cooking.
Ready in 15 minutes
Serves 8 (allow 3 per person)
2 dozen scallops
A few grinds freshly ground pepper
12 super-thin slices prosciutto
1 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat oven to 240C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Pat scallops dry and season with pepper. Cut each piece of prosciutto in half lengthwise and wrap a half around the circumference of each scallop. (You can secure with toothpicks but shouldn't need to as the prosciutto is so thin it should stick.)
Place on baking tray, brush tops with oil and roast for 6 minutes until prosciutto is just starting to crisp and scallops are just cooked through. Test by piercing the centre of scallop with a knife — it should come out feeling warm but not too hot. Stand for 2 minutes then serve with lemon wedges.
Asparagus, Snow Pea and Scallop Salad
This impressive salad makes a few scallops go a long way. When asparagus is not in season, simply double the amount of snow peas. The asparagus and snow peas can be cooked a couple of hours before you eat, the scallops seared up to half an hour ahead of serving. The citrus chilli dressing will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
Ready in 10-12 minutes
24 spears fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off
100g snow peas, trimmed of stringy bits
50g rocket leaves
Flesh of 1 large just-ripe avocado, cut into chunks
24 fresh scallops (or more as extravagance allows)
Zest of ½ lemon or lime, finely grated
Salt and ground black pepper
A pinch of sugar
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup citrus chilli dressing (see below)
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Lightly salt the water then drop in the trimmed asparagus and return to the boil for 3 minutes. Add the snow peas to the pot for the final 20 seconds of the cooking time. Do not overcook.
Drain then immediately cover the vegetables with cold water (this helps to capture their vivid green colour and crunchiness). Drain the vegetables thoroughly. Arrange the rocket leaves on a serving platter and place the asparagus and snow peas on top. Top with the avocado chunks.
Mix the scallops with the lemon or lime zest and season with salt, pepper and sugar (the sugar helps the scallops caramelise without overcooking). Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan until it is very hot and cook the scallops for about 30-50 seconds on each side — they should be browned but still soft. Don't overcook them and don't overcrowd the pan — you may need to sear them in two batches.
Pile scallops on top of salad, drizzle with ¼ cup dressing and toss. Divide between 6 serving plates and serve at once.
Citrus chilli dressing
Place ¼ cup each of orange, lime and lemon juice in a large jar with 1 tsp rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp fish sauce, 1 Tbsp sugar, ground black pepper and 1 small red chilli, seeds removed and flesh very finely diced.
Shake to blend and chill until ready to serve. This dressing is great with seafood, chicken or salad greens and keeps for up to a week in the fridge. Makes ½ cup.