It’s Peconic Bay scallop season on the North Fork

Peconic Bay scallop season begins today, Monday, Nov. 4. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

A calendar hanging in the northforker office has holidays marked in bold red letters. In November, there are three such days: Election Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

If we had any say on the contents of said calendar, a fourth holiday would be added on Monday, Nov. 4: Peconic Bay Scallops Day.

Each year, we eagerly await that first day of scallop season, as the local baymen head out onto the bay before the sun rises, returning in the afternoon with bushels for our local markets.

Our fingers are crossed this year as we’ve already heard from several sources that there aren’t many scallops to be harvested this season. While we should know more soon, this could be an issue for our baymen, the businesses they service and also the events and other plans that are made around the scallop season.

Baring a catastrophic return, by this evening both Southold Fish Market and Braun Seafood Company will be selling bay scallops. Some area restaurants will be cooking with them as well.

To mark our favorite East End holiday, we took a trip down memory lane and dug up some of the things our staff writers and contributors have written about scallops over the years.

Here’s to hoping our baymen have a good season!

Bringing scallops back to life

There are many ways for a scallop to die before its time, and biologist Stephen Tettelbach is familiar with all of them. A professor at Long Island University, Mr. Tettlebach is the co-leader of a scallop restoration project run out of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program in Southold. That program has helped increase commercial shellfish revenues to the local economy by $8 million since 2006. He measures program success with data gathered from 20 dive sites in the Peconic Estuary, where he records the number, size and condition of bay scallops using forensic techniques worthy of a medical examiner on a murder case.

There is a story in every shell.

A slight ridge indicates that a scallop has been affected by some shock, such as an attack by a crab or a toxic algae bloom. A notch in the edge of the shell is the telltale sign of attempted murder by a whelk. The position of the scallop’s growth ring indicates its age, but also the speed of growth, and how favorable conditions in the bay have been. Mr. Tettelbach has also documented wintertime mass burials of hibernating scallops when underwater sediments shifted, and the scallops didn’t escape.

In 2006, the restoration program headed by Mr. Tettelbach began to support wild bay scallop populations by planting millions of larval scallops. The results have been remarkable, with overall annual Peconic Bay harvests from 2010 to 2016 coming in nine to 30 times higher than average annual harvests in the decade before the program began.

Once nearly extinct, Peconic Bay scallops are back, providing a winter boost to the East End economy.

— Charity Robey

(Credit: @fishguyphotos)

A rare underwater look at Peconic Bay scallops

The bay scallop (Argopecten irradians) is a bivalve mollusk, meaning it belongs to a class of mollusks that have two valves or shells. The coloration of these shells varies greatly among individuals. They can be found in dull shades of browns and grays to brilliant shades of reddish-browns and oranges. These colors are accented by the shell’s symmetrical shape with many ridges radiating outward from the center of the shell’s hinge. The beauty of a scallop shell has them sought after by shell collectors and in 1988 New York officially named the bay scallop the state shell.

A bay scallop’s beauty does not stop at the shell. They have at least 18 pairs of the prettiest, brightest blue eyes you have ever seen. Looking like small gemstones, each eye is fairly well-developed and is capable of detecting movement and shadows of potential predators. Their keen eyesight can make photographing them quite difficult, as they often close their shell just as I am about to squeeze the shutter. If I am patient and remain still, they will slowly open back up once they feel that the danger has passed. Sadly, consumers rarely see these beautiful eyes. They are discarded along with the mantle, gills and other innards long before they reach the seafood market. The large adductor muscle is all that is kept when cleaning scallops. The opposite is true with clams, mussels and oysters, where the adductor muscle is normally left behind, as it can be tough and chewy.

— Chris Paparo

Following scallops from bay to plate

In 2017, I followed baymen from the water to the seafood market, ending up at a local restaurant, where the scallops were served.

— Krysten Massa

Scalloping on Shelter Island

In fishing, as in real estate, it’s all about location, and on opening day of scallop season, there is no more appropriate or beautiful place to embark for prime scalloping spots than Congdons Creek, the heart of the Shelter Island scallop fishery since the 19th century.

For baymen with a slip at the Congdons Creek dock, or waterfront property nearby, the Sunday afternoon before New York State waters open for scallop fishing is a scene of organized and orderly anticipation.

Once a livelihood, scalloping is now a fishing sideline for the winter months, but a tradition of going out on opening day is still strong among some families. The scallop dinner that so many East Enders will sit down to this week is a connection to the past, and a reminder of how sweet and good this place is at the nexus of land and sea.

— Charity Robey

Three ways to prepare Peconic Bay scallops

As a chef on the North Fork I have cooked Peconic Bay scallops in many ways, going all the way back to 1973, when I opened Ross’ North Fork Restaurant. (Back then we had a sandwich sign in front of the restaurant that advertised a Peconic Bay scallop dinner for $4.95). The season for scallops went from September to March, but has been shortened in recent years to November to March. This allows the scallops to spawn and grow to maturity. I only cook fresh scallops when they are in season. When you freeze and thaw them, they are still pretty good but their structure breaks down, they lose moisture and they don’t caramelize when sautéed.

The Peconic Bay scallop is not just another local shellfish. It is much more than that. A cuisine may be defined according to Webster as “The ingredients, seasonings, cooking procedures and style attributed to a particular group of people.” In those far-gone days of the 1970s we offered our scallops either broiled, sautéed or fried. Today, creative chefs have come to the North Fork and have found new ways to cook and present these treasures and to feature our bounty of fruits, vegetables, poultry, meat and seafood on their menus. And they have done it in a way that preserves our unique heritage and culture. The Peconic Bay scallop is one of the most important elements in the emergence of a true North Fork cuisine.

What is the best way to cook scallops? Sautéed in butter at high heat for a very short time with a little citrus added at the end is always good, but here are a few recipes that I have enjoyed over the years:

Sautéed with Potato Gnocchi

Boil 1 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes in their skins until tender. Peel off the skins and cut into chunks, then force through a potato ricer (or mash by hand).

Place the potatoes in a bowl along with 1 beaten egg, 1 cup flour, 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Mix together with a spatula, then form into a dough with your hands.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead into a smooth ball. Let it rest for 10 minutes, then cut it into 6 pieces.

Using your hands, roll each piece into a rope about 1 inch thick. Cut these into 1-inch pieces and, holding a dinner fork in one hand, roll each gnocchi over the back of the fork, pressing a small hole in the center as you roll.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and cook the gnocchi until they float, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a foil-lined sheet pan.

At service time, heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add 1 pound of scallops in batches and cook at high heat just until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Remove the scallops and add the gnocchi to the hot pan, also in batches, adding more butter if necessary. Reduce the heat and add 1 cup heavy cream and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.

Add back the scallops along with 1/4 cup chopped parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Serve in shallow soup plates.

Serves 4.

Scallops à la Vodka with Orecchiette

Place 1 pound of scallops in a bowl with 2 teaspoons mashed garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Peel and dice 1 butternut squash into half-inch cubes.

Chop 1 cup shallots.

Heat a large sauté pan and brown the scallops at high heat in batches. Do not overcook.

Remove the scallops, lower the heat and add 2 tablespoons butter. Add the butternut squash and 1 tablespoon chopped sage. Cover and cook until the squash is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan and the chopped shallots. Sauté at low heat until soft and add 1 cup vodka. Turn up the heat and boil until reduced by half.

Lower the heat and add 1 cup heavy cream. Add back the butternut squash and the scallops. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 pound of orecchiette pasta. Cook until al dente and combine with the scallops mixture.

Butter-Poached Scallops with Fennel and Avocado

Melt 1/2 pound of unsalted butter in a shallow saucepan. Heat to a simmer and add 1 pound of scallops. Add the juice and zest of 1 lime and cook until the scallops turn opaque, about 4 minutes. Remove the scallops and set aside.

Trim the bulb of 1 bunch of fennel and cut into quarter-inch dice. Add this to the saucepan and cook at medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes.

Cut 1 ripe avocado in half and remove the seed. Cut the flesh into wedges and remove from the skin.

Add the avocado to the saucepan along with the scallops, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and the juice of 1 lime. Season with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Serve over jasmine rice.

Serves 4.

— John Ross

Albariño is perfect with scallops

The bay scallop season used to begin in late September, forcing some vineyards to turn to mechanical harvesting when the pickers abandoned vineyards to become baymen. (Less sticky? More lucrative?)

Then the brown tide killed most of the scallops, the scallop season was postponed to November and grape pickers returned.

I like to keep bay scallops pristine when I cook them: no breading, no garlic, no sauce excepting for the butter they are seared in (and maybe a deglazing of the wine I’m drinking).

I’ve always advocated Long Island sauvignon blanc with bay scallops. Its bright herbaceousness cuts through the richness of the scallops (and their butter). But this year I’m pairing them with another seafood-friendly favorite, albariño, the signature grape of Rias Baixas (northern Spain), now being grown by a handful of Long Island growers.

Miguel Martin, who grew up in Spain and has experience in Australia and California, too, planted an acre of albariño at Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue in 2007, reasoning, “We share so many similarities to Galicia and it’s normal that this grape does well in our region.”

Most importantly, albariño shows remarkable resistance to the mildews that damage grapes in maritime climates.

No one is sure where albariño originated, but its name derives from the Latin “alva,” meaning “white,” and “rhenos,” the river “Rhine.” Some say the grape is a clone of riesling, brought by Romans who settled in this region from their vineyards on the Rhine (now Germany) before 500 A.D. In fact, until recently, Spanish albariño was characteristically sold in long, tapered bottles to reinforce this identity.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, planted an acre of albariño in 2011 and finds many aromatic similarities between riesling and albariño, such as “apricots, peaches and other TDN-derived mono terpenes” (a quality often described as ‘petrol’).

Pale in color, albariño has great purity and surprising depth on the palate.

Just right for those bay scallops.

— Louisa Hargrave

More fun facts about scallops

• An adult scallop can swim across the bottom of the ocean to protect itself from predators by using its large adductor muscle, which is the part of the scallop humans eat. The muscle allows scallops to open and close their shells quickly, propelling them through the water. This is referred to as “clapping.”

• The scallop can be found in bays from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico and even in Nova Scotia. Locally, bay scallops are found mostly in the Peconics, Great South Bay, Moriches Bay and Shinnecock Bay.

— Carrie Miller