- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It’s mighty quiet this time of year on Chappaquiddick Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Real quiet. The tourists are gone. The leaves are off the trees. Only one store in town carries a daily newspaper and it requires a ferry ride and a six-block walk to get to.

You’d be crazy to live there unless you happen to like quiet and solitude, in which case it’s pure bliss. Where else can you walk on the beach and be the only person in sight for a mile in each direction? Where else do deer come galloping across your back yard and rabbits gather fearlessly in your driveway?

My wife and I hadn’t planned to stay on Chappaquiddick so late in the season, but the more we get to know this island, the harder it is to leave. Which brings me to one of the greatest attractions of Martha’s Vineyard in the winter: a star of an edible sort known as the Edgartown bay scallop.

You’ve probably heard of the Nantucket bay scallop. While I don’t want to defame the seafood of a neighboring island, its shellfish can’t hold a candle to ours. Actually, I’m happy to let Nantucket hog the limelight for its bay scallops, as long as I get to make a perfect hog of myself on Edgartown’s.

Every morning during bay scallop season (which begins in November and runs through the end of March), small open skiffs manned by one or two hardy fishermen split the morning mist over the harbor.

Their quarry is a shell perhaps 2 to 3 inches across, purplish brown or gray or gray blue, with a ridged or “scalloped” surface. The scallops are caught with a dredge, net or even by scuba diving in the shallow waters of Katama or Cape Pogue Bay. They’re so tiny it takes 40 to 50 to make a pound. The part you eat is the adductor muscle, which is a tiny white cylinder of meat that holds the two shells together.

The scallop is a remarkable creature on several accounts. First, is by the way it sees through several dozen tiny eyes at the periphery of the shell. Second is how it gets around through a sort of jet propulsion caused by rapidly opening and closing its two shells.

The most remarkable thing about a bay scallop is the texture and flavor of its adductor muscle. It is so tender, so mild, so preternaturally nutty and sweet, it seems almost a shame to cook it.

My wife, Barbara, and I differ on this account. When we buy a batch of bay scallops, I eat a dozen or so raw in the process of cleaning them.

I could eat the whole bag raw, but Barbara prefers them cooked, a process measured in single-digit minutes.

The only thing you have to do to prepare a scallop for cooking is to remove the tiny crescent-shaped muscle on the side of the scallop.

This tiny muscle becomes tough and rubbery when the scallop is cooked, and I recommend removing it from any size scallop you may be using. Simply pry it off with your fingers.

There are many ways to cook a bay scallop. In my mind, the simpler methods are better. For example, you can lightly dust them with flour and quickly saute them in butter. Or sprinkle them with bread crumbs and olive oil and cook them under the broiler.

Alas, not all bay scallops are equal, and while you can buy Florida or California bay scallops, they will not have the delicate, fine and nutty flavor of true Edgartown bays.

You’ll recognize the latter by the ivory tan hue, thumbnail shape and size, and sweet nutty smell and flavor.

It’s unlikely you’ll find Edgartown bay scallops anywhere but in Martha’s Vineyard, but you can order them by mail from Edgartown Seafood (508/627-3791).

If you must, Nantucket bay scallops taste similar and are more widely available, thanks to greater supply and distribution. Look for them in quality fish markets.

By the way, the scallops should look moist, not soupy. If they are floating in a pool of milky liquid, chances are they’re not true New England bay scallops, and they’re certainly not fresh.

Bay scallop gratin with cream and tomatoes

1½ pounds bay scallops.

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons butter or extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for dotting or drizzling

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tomato, peeled, seeded and diced

3 tablespoons white vermouth

½ cup heavy cream

1/3 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade

Preheat broiler. Remove the crescent-shaped muscle on the side of any scallop that has one. (Some may fall off during shucking.)

Season scallops on all sides with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil in a 12-inch skillet with a heatproof handle. Cook shallots over medium heat until lightly browned, 4 to 6 minutes.

Increase heat to high, add tomato and saute for 1 minute. Add scallops and saute for 1 to 2 minutes to sear the outside. (They should remain raw in the center.) Add vermouth and bring to a boil.

Add cream and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat. Sprinkle scallops with bread crumbs and dot with remaining butter or drizzle with remaining olive oil.

Place skillet under preheated broiler and cook until bread crumbs are browned and scallops are cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Note: You can make this gratin with full-size sea scallops. Cut them in half or quarters to approximate the bite-sized shape of a bay scallop.

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