A Caribbean Recipe for Sea Scallops
Growing up in the Caribbean, my brother and I were used to going line fishing and snorkeling and free diving around reefs and shallow shipwrecks for a treasure trove of seafood. From oysters to lobsters, conchs to crabs – it felt like Christmas when we’d return with our bags full of fresh catches! We have an undeniable love for all things from the ocean that only grew stronger after moving away from home.
When we moved to New York City, however, our palates were met with disappointment at what passed as ‘seafood’ at local markets – old-looking fish that smelled too strong even before they hit the pan. Little did we know then that there was so much more out there!
One holiday weekend changed everything: a trip up north brought us face-to-face with Maine’s bounty of delicious seafood just waiting to be discovered by sea-foodies like us!
I remember we met this big burly heavy bearded dude in waterproof rubber overalls who engaged us in conversation about Caribbean vs Maine waters. He looked and sounded like a very seasoned fisherman who may have spent more of his life on the water than on land.
Turns out he worked with a local scallop fishery of which we knew nothing about. He started explaining what a scallop was and that he was about to go and harvest some from the scallop farm, and invited us to come along for the ride. Jamaica doesn’t have scallops, so we had never even seen much less harvested them before. We were super excited to try our hand at harvesting them and experiencing the local sea life.
It was April and was cold enough on land that the sea breeze literally felt like we were in Alaska. The water was ice-cold and not quite as crystal clear as we were used to in Jamaica. We made our way to a shallow bay where the scallops were farmed. It was an unforgettable experience to be surrounded by thousands of these new-to-me creatures.
After several hours, we returned to shore and cleaned the scallops, removing the tough abductor muscle and leaving only the tender white meat. I couldn’t wait to try my first fresh scallop. Our new found friend took us to a little makeshift kitchen in the back of the dock where they process other seafood for the local restaurants. He heated up some butter with salt till it was smoking, He then added a few smashed pieces of fresh garlic. He seared the shucked scallops ever so slightly on both sides for what seemed like no more than 2 or 3 minutes and gave it to us on a piece of bread that was dipped in the now browned butter. The scallop was sweeter than anything I had ever tasted and had a texture that was both tender and succulent. It was like nothing we had ever tasted before, a succulent explosion of flavor that made me feel like I was tasting the ocean itself.
The butter on the bread tasted of all the juices the scallop gave up while searing in the pan along with the nutty flavor of the browned butter and garlic. I was truly blown away by this new gastronomical adventure. Truly an amazing and a one-of-a-kind experience that we would never forget. That day was the beginning of my new love for all types of American seafood (of which we tried many on that trip) and an appreciation for just how different–and delicious–seafood varieties can be. From that point on, I knew that fresh dry scallops would always hold a special place in my heart (and on my plate). It’s amazing how just a few simple ingredients can create such a decadent and delicious meal.
Back in New York City, I tried to find fresh dry scallops to eat at local restaurants, but I was always disappointed. They just didn’t measure up to the scallops I had tasted in Maine. I longed for the sweet, delicate flavor of fresh scallops shucked straight from the shell.
Many years later, I learned of the Fulton Fish Market and finally found a vendor with fresh scallops in the shell. I couldn’t believe my luck! I bought a bag and rushed home to cook them.
As I prepared the scallops in the very same fashion as I had it in that fisherman’s kitchen, memories flooded back of my time in Maine, harvesting them fresh from the ocean. And finally, after all my disappointment in restaurants and my failed attempts at re-living my experience, I found my way back to the taste of Maine. After trying many different styles of preparations offered in restaurants, I still believe the simple way I first had it was still the best, but maybe I am biased. As I took my first bite of those delicious, freshly shucked babies, I knew that I was in scallop heaven once again.
Good quality dry scallops have become a bit easier to find these days, albeit a lot more expensive
Wet scallops have been treated with phosphates which helps them retain moisture after cooking; however, they can become tough if overcooked since they contain more water than their drier counterparts (which is why chefs tend to opt for ‘dry’ when preparing). Dry ones are fresher and of much better quality, and don’t require any additional treatment – plus they’re easier to work with since there’s less chance of them becoming too chewy due to excess moisture content during cooking. I do not believe that wet scallops are even worth cooking. But I am after all, a purist. Your mileage may vary.
To get the perfect sear, the key is heat control – make sure not only your pan but also oil/butter is hot before adding in those scrumptious little mollusks (this will help ensure even browning). Once everything has reached optimal temperature it should take no longer than 2 minutes per side until golden brown perfection emerges from within. As a variation I sometimes add a fresh sprig of thyme, some minced scotch bonnet peppers and a squeeze of lemon juice toward the end of searing to create a more complex flavor profile on the finish.
SEARED FRESH DRY SEA SCALLOPS
- 1 lb dry sea Scallops
- 2 tbsp unsalted Butter
- Salt and Pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh Garlic
- Fresh Thyme sprig
- Lemon wedges
- ¼ teaspoon fresh minced Scotch bonnet pepper (optional)
- 1 tablespoon chopped Parsley (for garnish)
- Remove the scallops from the refrigerator and let them sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
- Pat them dry with a paper towel and season them generously with salt and pepper.
- Heat up a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter.
- When the butter is melted and foamy, and just beginning to smoke slightly, add the scallops to the pan, making sure to leave enough room between them.
- Sear the scallops for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are golden brown and caramelized.
- Add thyme sprig 1 minute before removing scallops form the heat
- Remove the scallops from the pan and add another tablespoon of butter to the same pan.
- Add the minced garlic
- When the butter is melted and foamy, add the scallops back into the pan and swirl them around to coat them with the garlic butter.
- Add the optional scotch bonnet pepper.
- Squeeze some lemon juice over the scallops, remove from the heat garnish with chopped parsley and serve hot.
For the perfect accompaniment to your seared dry scallops, you’ll want a delicious bread to soak up the butter. A nice thick piece of Jamaican hardough bread comes to mind, torn away from the loaf, not sliced, as this is fisherman’s fare after all.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.