Aw, shucks

Categories: Expert guidance

Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and writer of several books. Ahead of the Rye Bay Scallop Week, which this year takes place 18th-26th February, he talks about his love of this delicate bivalve, and how we can best appreciate them at home

Scallops. One of my favourite shellfish, coming in at close second on my list second only to good plump cockles. There used to be a certain mystery, some class and luxury to scallops—rarely seen on menus, expensive and exotic, the preserve of the wealthy. These days, scallops are everywhere and on every menu from the local Cantonese takeaway, to the finest Michelin-starred venues, no menu is complete without its very own version of this tasty bivalve. Mousses, foams, ceviches; smoked, slated, dried—you name it, it’s been done.

Scallops and their shells have been used for thousands of years for food and tools. Early lamps found in caves in the West Country were made by simply melting sheep fat into a scallop sell and using a wool wick, a bit like a liquid candle.

In modern times, the scallop has become a victim of its own popularity and I think these days we all know that we should be looking for hand-dived scallops, not dredged ones. Fresh, hand-dived scallops are sweet, fresh and fishy in a very mild way and they respond best to simple, straightforward cookery.

What I find odd, given the popularity of these creatures, is the amount of poor cookery they suffer at the hands of well-intentioned but incompetent cooks. Cooks can spend all day making a sauce from a local cider reduction and infusing the frills from the scallops, hours scrubbing the shells clean and polishing them with oil to make them gleam—they could in fact cover them in gold leaf for all I care—yet what I don’t understand, is how often they get the basic cookery of the scallop meat so wrong.

Cleverly disguised
What we are talking about here is a simple muscle of fish flesh. It wants to be cooked like most fish, but not overdone. Alternatively, you can serve it raw—also delicious. What tends to happen is something in the middle, a scallop that is neither raw, nor cooked and very often cleverly disguised as a cooked scallop, but cold and mildly unpleasant in the middle.

What happens all too often, I believe, is the good old worry factor. You only need to tell off a young cook once or twice for overcooking the scallops they are serving before you instill a kind of paranoia in them and they refuse routinely to cook them well enough.

So, how to get it right? Well, no matter your intended garnish, if you are going to cook scallops I recommend taking them out of the fridge half an hour or so before cooking to let them warm up a little (this makes them much easier to cook) then season them just before you start cooking. The last thing you want to do is start to salt cure the tender little darlings.

Cook on a high heat with a little fat to get a good transfer of heat from the pan to the flesh and once they firm up a bit, take them off and let them rest for another minute or two. You will only overcook your scallops once or twice before you get the knack, and trust me when I tell you it’s far more enjoyable to eat a few lightly overcooked scallops than a few underdone ones.

A simple garnish
So, what is it that really makes the scallop so popular? It’s not the strongest of flavours nor the most satisfying of textures, but when cooked well, with a little colour and a simple garnish, they become more than they were; they transcend mere fishy-ness and cross the barrier between the flesh of fish and that of land animals. They are simply excellent when fresh and cooked well.

I was once lucky enough to eat fresh scallops threaded on to bay twigs and grilled over a drift wood fire on the beach and my goodness they were good, the only garnish a little chopped dulse. It doesn’t need to be complicated to be epic, but the basics must be right for the dish to even stand a chance. They are so often the victim of failure. They deserve better—and so do you.

Read Tim’s recipe for grilled scallops, with parsley and garlic butter & nori crumbs