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How To Bake Bay Scallops, And Prove That Size Isn't Everything

Illustration for article titled How To Bake Bay Scallops, And Prove That Size Isnt Everything

Seems like bay scallops get kind of a raw deal, doesn't it? At my local purveyor of seafoods, the big honkin' fist-sized sea scallops get a place of honor in the glass display case, while the bay scallops are stuck over in the freezer across the way, packed by the dozens into grim plastic bags, frozen, largely forgotten. I feel bad for them! Because I am a creepy weirdo who anthropomorphizes dead mollusks, but also because this is just a wildly undeserved station for the bay scallops, who never hurt anybody, who never wanted anything but to love and be loved, who like foot rubs and traveling and meeting new people.


And, most crucially, who are really fucking good to eat. Oh man. Bay scallops, prepared well, are a delight: They're a bit more intensely flavorful—and a little saltier—than their big sea scallop cousins, and, I dunno, there's just something crazily satisfying about eating, like, a lot of them, which you can do because they're a lot smaller than sea scallops. You bake a bunch of them with breadcrumbs and white wine, and they're aromatic and richly flavorful and just so, so damn good.

It's their size that holds them back. Americans get spiral-eyed and drooly and visibly aroused for things that are larger than other things: Trucks that are bigger than other trucks, scallops that are bigger than other scallops, unsustainable tech bubbles that are bigger than previous unsustainable tech bubbles. It's dumb and mistaken, and it leaves one of the great seafoods languishing in the freezer while misguided goobers blow money on sea scallops the size of car tires and ruin them with bacon.


So, hey: Give those big gaudy sea scallops a break, and make a detour to the freezer next time you swing through the supermarket or the fishmonger. Grab a bag of bay scallops. We'll cook 'em, and they'll be stupendously good. Little heroes. All they're asking for is a chance!

The first thing you must do is acquire bay scallops. Likely these will be frozen and dumped in a bag at your local supermarket; a pound of 'em will serve four people, provided they're not the only thing on the table. If they're available and not too grotesquely expensive, go for ones labeled "diver" scallops: These are scallops that have been snatched out of the wild by the actual hands of a diver, as opposed to ones bred on scallop farms in China.

The difference between diver and non-diver scallops is a bigger deal with sea scallops, whose non-diver varieties are harvested by dredging the sea floor, a procedure that is ruinous to the ecosystem in the dredged areas; you should always buy sea scallops that are diver-harvested, both as a person who makes ecologically responsible choices where possible, but also as a person who recognizes that a healthy sea floor will produce more tasty scallops than a ruined hellscape. With bay scallops, the biggest difference between wild, diver-harvested varieties and their farmed brethren is flavor: The wild ones are bursting with it. If you can get them, it's worth paying a bit extra.

Plan on buying your bay scallops at least a day before you plan on cooking them; this will give you time to thaw your scallops overnight on the top shelf of your fridge. We've covered this before, but the trick with thawing frozen animal foodstuffs is that the slower you thaw them, the better they'll be—so don't forget this step and wind up having to, like, hurriedly run your bay scallops under a cold tap, or run them yet more hurriedly under a warm tap, or attack them with a blowtorch because your in-laws will be here in 13 minutes and oh, god, I promised them bay scallops for dinner shit shit shit this is it, time to hit the rails, time to stop lying to myself and become the hobo I already am on the inside. No. Remember. Carve it into your forehead. Thaw them in the fridge.


OK, so, now you've got your bay scallops thawed, and you're ready to cook 'em. Dump them into a colander and rinse your bay scallops under some cold water for, oh, 30 seconds. This'll wash off any sand and grit that made the journey from the briny deep to your home just to be close to its scallop friends, you coldhearted monster. Move the scallops around with your bare hands while you rinse 'em, just to make sure they all get some exposure to the water. How gross they are! How floppy and slimy and gross! Oh. god, they're gonna be so good. Set them aside for a moment.

Hey, and also: Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Now, whip out your trustiest skillet or frying pan, and cook half a stick of unsalted butter and a generous pinch of crushed red pepper in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil in there. If you want to mince a garlic clove or a small shallot and chuck it in there, that's cool, too, but not necessary. If you want to leave the olive oil out because for some dumb reason you think the flavor and aroma of olive oil won't benefit your food, that is not cool, but is your choice, but also: Don't. It's good!


Once the butter's melted and the red pepper's heated up and you can smell it and the olive oil and hey, would it be cool if I just sop this stuff up with a paper towel and rub it all over myself, drop a generous double-fistful of breadcrumbs and a hearty pinch of salt in there. I recommend Japanese breadcrumbs, here, but suit yourself. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula or the envelope with your electricity bill in it or whatever, move the pan's contents around until all the hot fats are soaked up, then turn off the heat and set this aside for a second.

Grab a shallow-ish casserole dish, or glass or ceramic baking pan, or [stifles laughter] a gratin [snort] dish [ha ha ha psych oh man you will never have one of those], and dump your bay scallops into this baking vessel. The temptation is to try to cram, like, 10 billion of the little fuckers in there; try to resist it. I mean, go ahead and dump a buncha friggin' scallops in there, sure, but don't pack them tightly, or they won't cook evenly. It's OK for them to be two deep in there, but no more than that. If that means you have to break out a second baking vessel and split the scallops between your two baking vessels, hell, that's OK, except that this might necessitate venturing forth into the public in search of a baking vessel that wasn't accidentally bequeathed to you by Aunt Hortense when she sent some leftover broccoli casserole home with you on Thanksgiving 12 goddamn years ago.


(Note: Many bay scallop recipes—many recipes for all kinds of scallops, actually—will have you waste your time hacking the little muscle off the side of each little scallop, as though it were a poisonous neurotoxin-secreting gland and not just a marginally chewier bit of scallop. That's dumb. Many good things are chewier than scallops. Bacon. Celery. Your cat. You do not throw these things in the garbage just because they are chewier than a scallop. Leave the muscle on your scallops. It's fine.)

Now, drizzle a couple glugs' worth of cheap-shit white wine over the scallops in their baking vessel. Just a couple little glugs' worth, if you please; this'll mostly steam away during cooking, but it'll leave behind a little acidic tang to do fun stuff with the other flavors going on in there. Also, scoop that hot, buttery breadcrumb mixture over top of all this (figurative) shit.


And now, sock that fucker in the oven and set a timer for, oh, what, maybe 12 minutes. You're not looking for complete unambiguous well-done-ness in your bay scallops; just like when you sear a sea scallop ("sear a sea scallop"—say that 671 times fast), you're aiming to heat them up and get them juuuuuuuust cooked. If it should happen to be the case that, when you haul these fuckers out in a few minutes, some of them are still uncooked in the middle, that's fine—better that than chewy overcooked bay scallops.

Meanwhile, hey—you've got 12 minutes of free time! Chop some stuff. Specifically, a big handful of flat-leaf parsley and a bunch of chives. A fine chop on the parsley, if you please, and render those chives into the smallest, cutest little rings you can manage. Also, cut a lemon into wedges.


When the timer beeps or dings or rings or whatever, put on a pair of sturdy oven mitts (or wrap your hands in T-shirts) and yank the baking vessel(s) out of the oven. Have a look! The breadcrumb stuff is sizzling and browned a bit; there's a buttery, briny, ever-so-slightly winy aroma gushing out from under it; the little bay scallops are a bit whiter and more opaque than they were 12 minutes ago. They're done.

Spritz the scallops with some of the lemon, and sprinkle some of the parsley and chives over top of the whole shebang. That's it. Let's eat some scallops.


If this food looks insubstantial to the eye, you can pad your bay scallops with some white rice or crusty bread or some cooked linguine tossed with any liquid you can gather from the bottom of the baking vessel(s)—but, you probably don't need to. The breadcrumbs will add some heft to the affair, and anyway, there's enough flavor and texture going on here—salt and piquant heat and bright herbal greenness, the sweetness of the scallops and the buttery crunch of the breadcrumbs, the slight tartness of the lemon and wine casting everything into vivid Technicolor—to satisfy any sane person. The thing to do is serve your bay scallops in a little dish next to a glass of some more of that cheap-shit white wine and let the little things be the star of the show. A very simple salad—greens, olive oil, lemon, garlic, salt, pepper—will complement them nicely.


Look at those cute little scallops. Adorable! Teeny, innocent, lovable, harmless little scallops. Destroy them.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at Image by Sam Woolley.

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