These morsels are about the size of the tip of your thumb. The native eelgrass that surrounds the island acts as a nursery for the tender scallops, making them the last substantial wild scallop population on the East Coast, according to Peter Boyce, chair of Nantucket's Harbor and Shellfish Advisory Board. The commercial scallop season starts Nov. 1 and runs through the end of March, but most of the madness happens prior to New Year's, before the harbor freezes over and fishermen can still get their boats out on the water.
Ryan Dobbins of Nantucket Bay Scallop Company says scallops move surprisingly quickly, often in groups and have upwards of 80-100 eyes that are on the lookout in all directions for danger. (That's right, they have eyeballs.) A reinvigorated harbor-to-table movement has meant that this year, Dobbins is able to sell directly to the public, in much the same way a farmer might peddle produce at a farmer's market.
While it's their sweetness that sets them apart, their ability to caramelize spectacularly means they're highly coveted by chefs and foodies. "The key is a really hot pan," says chef Chris Parsons of Catch in Winchester, Mass. "Spread them out so they're not in a pile or crowded, then leave it on high and don't touch them. Let them sear and then flip them over, and you'll get a dark brown, caramelized surface."
Catch's Sauteed Nantucket Bay Scallops with Butternut Squash and Celery Root Hash
Serves 4 appetizer portions
1 pound Nantucket bay scallops
1 cup diced celery root, 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup diced butternut squash, 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper
Fleur de sel
4 quail eggs
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook celery root in water for 30 seconds, until just tender, remove and place immediately into an ice water bath for one minute. Repeat with the butternut squash. Set both aside.
Pat scallops dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat a nonstick sauté pan to high. Add olive oil to pan, then add seasoned scallops. Periodically shake pan to cook scallops evenly. When scallops have a golden-brown sear, add butter, celery root and butternut squash, cook until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange the completed has neatly in the center of four appetizer-sized plates. Top each with a quail egg cooked sunny-side up, then garnish with chopped chives and fleur de sel.