It’s scallop season here in NYC, with the arrival of the prized Peconic Bay scallops from Long Island’s North Fork.
“The season started on the first Monday in November,” says Stephanie Villani of Blue Moon Fish, stalwarts of the Union Square Greenmarket. “Partly because the season is so short, and partly because they’re actually quite rare, they’re a real delicacy.”
The season and the scarcity are the result of a “brown tide,” a microalgal bloom that’s been springing up in Long Island’s Peconic and South Shore estuaries since 1985, the result of excessive nitrogen lurking in the water failing to drain out to sea. Quite apart from turning the water a murky shade of dirt, the algae prevents light from getting to the eelgrass beds, rooted deep into the sandy bottom, where shellfish like to live, eat and breed. More algae, less eelgrass. Less eelgrass, fewer scallops.
Once worth over $2 million, the scallop industry limped through the Eighties and early Nineties until 1995, when an especially thick brown tide threatened to end it altogether. Since then, a breeding and seeding program has been nurturing the population back to healthier levels, but strict quotas and enforced fishing times are still needed to ensure that the scallop population can thrive.
“When we first opened Blue Moon Fish, scallops were $6 a pound,” says Villani. “Now they’re $24.99 a pound. But are they ever good! On the first day of the season, everyone sets out to fish for their allotment. The season officially ends in March, but if the quota gets filled before then, that’s it. So I think we’ll only have them for a few more weeks.”
Peconic Bay scallops are small, around the size of a quarter. And though meaty in texture, they have a much sweeter oceanic flavor than the larger sea scallops we’re used to seeing on menus year round.
“Honestly, they’re so good that when they’re really fresh, I eat them raw, with maybe a squeeze of lemon,” says Villani. “Or I lightly sear them – just until they’re cooked, with a good dab of butter and some parsley.”
Down in Tribeca, Marc Forgione is pairing them with morsels of salty bacon and crunchy honeycrisp apple, and serving them with black lager spaetzle.
Uptown, at the that palace of seafood, the Grand Central Oyster Bar, executive chef Sandy Ingber is taking a similar stance, “I think they’re best sautéed – but not overcooked. Just as sweet as can be.” They’re served with the classic butter and parsley, but also with a pink peppercorn-studded beurre rouge, and a tarragon beurre blanc.
“Aficionados consider these favorites a national treasure,” Ingber notes. “Preparing them is a treat in itself.”