Scallops Season Returns, and the Question is Butter or Not

Arnold Leo and Elizabeth Schaffner scalloping in the Peconic Bay in 1982, just a few years before the browntide. “It was truly depressing,” Leo recalled “Coffee-colored water from Riverhead to Gardiner’s Island.”

The first flush of Peconic Bay scallops has graced our table a couple of times since the season for this diminutive mollusk opened a week ago. Reports are mixed on how good this crop is, with bayman from Shelter Island to Montauk reporting fewer scallops than last year. Seafood mongers tell me there’s always this sort of cautionism in the first week, with fishers not wanting to betray any bullish information that might drive down the prevailing price. So far, prices are ranging from $16 a pound to $25 a pound at the seafood counter, with lower prices–as usual–on the North Fork and west of the Shinnecock Canal.

If you’ll recall from our 2005 story on the scallop resurgence, this fishery used to provide a major winter income for Long Island fishers, putting kids through college, inspiring regional dishes and even grabbing honors as the state’s official shellfish. Harvests were as high as several million pounds per year as recently as the 1970s, before a widespread brown tide in the early 1980s suffocated the eelgrass and other bay bottom that sustained the scallops. The catch has recovered significantly in recent years, although at 20,000 to 100,000 pounds, it’s a small fraction of the current haul.

“Things look pretty good but I don’t know that we will quite get to the harvest of last year,” Dr. Stephen Tettlebach, a professor at Long Island University and one of the lead researchers in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Peconic Bay Scallop Restoration Program, told the Shelter Island Reporter. Scalloping spots like Robin’s Island, Flanders Bay, Orient Harbor have also seen fewer boats, he said. “Last year on opening day, an estimated 50 to 70 boats were working the west side of Robins Island. I’m sure lots of people will be looking there but we just didn’t see that many bugs [baby scallops] there when we did our surveys. It’s typical that an area will be really good one year and the next year it won’t.”

Still, as handwritten signs on seafood shop doors and on back roads declare, there are plenty of scallops for sale at standbys like Cor-J in Westhampton and the Seafood Shop in Wainscott.

Edible contributor Amy Zavatto picked up her first batch at the Southold Fish Market for $17 a pound, as good a price as she can recall from recent years. She said that one of the Clarks on Shelter Island, a long-time local fishing family, was selling them for $18. “I stocked up (four pounds!),” she writes, “I also picked up a few new (to me) wines and stopped in at the Winemakers’ Studio. I know the Anomaly was what everyone wanted to get their hands on, but I was curious about the Riesling and Gewurz (both very cool wines – esp the Gewurz) and his Cab Franc was also very, very good.”

“It’s gone a little bit down. The first day we were jamming,” said Alex Fausto of the Seafood Shop, where the scallops have been coming from Stuart Heath in Montauk and other baymen. Extreme scallop afficianados will sometimes come in for two pounds, Fausto said, popping one pound of the little, raw disks of flesh, “like candy,” on the drive home. The other pound they will keep for cooking later.

Which leads to the old bebate about whether you should cook these rare foods at all. (One raw prep we like, a la Dave Pasternak’s crudo, is to coat them with olive oil and some sea salt, and eat them immediately or after they have marinated a bit.) “Normally, the old fashioned people do them with a little bit of creme, very simple,” said Fausto. “They saute them with a little heavy creme and butter and a little garlic. They don’t really cook them even. 2-3 minutes max, or less. You don’t want to overcook them.”

The Peconic bay scallop season is open until April, although the fishing in recent years has rarely persisted past late January. Fausto said the shop has been getting 70 to 100 pounds a day, and selling it all fresh within a day or two.As the season goes on, he says, the shop will typically freeze a portion to help extend the season deeper into the winter.

So, it’s safe to say you can plan for scallops on your Thanksgiving table. Whether you’ll be able to include them in your Feast of the Seven Fishes or New Year’s Day osechi remains to be seen.