In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Not Quite Halfway to Spring
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone. . . .
Christina Rossetti never made it to the Coast of Maine but her words ring like prophecy now at the tail end of January, a tough time to be here. It’s true the days are getting ever so slightly longer but there’s a lot of winter still to come. The ground is iron hard, the fields and gardens are bare, the lakes frozen, cattle snuggle together around ice-glazed water tanks and birds huddle in the crotches of trees stripped by winter winds. And the snow piles up, the first deep and elegant coating of white quickly reduced and blackened by soot and the scrape of snowplows to miserable piles of eroded decay.
And then there are the associated chores: the porch steps to clear of snow and ice, the car to be defrosted almost every morning, the wood brought in for the fires. Sometimes I think I’m getting too old for this. And then I remember my forebears, including Aunt Doris Henderson and Ever-So-Great-Grandfather Ebenezer Thorndike, both of whom survived Maine winters until the age of 103. Without complaint. Or not many complaints. In the modern meme: They got used to it.
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But it is indeed a harsh time of the year, a time when most sensible people have fled to Florida or Mexico or some Caribbean island hideaway lapped by impossibly turquoise waters.
And yet, for those of us who stay behind, those of us who actually love winter, there are great rewards. One comes in days of such intense, heart-stopping beauty that it’s hard to breathe without gasping--at the unfathomable depth of cloudless blue skies as dark as midnight at high noon, at dark green spruces and bare birches edging luminous fields of snow, at sunlight rippling on the deep slate-colored waters of the bay. These are perfect days for skiing on our local hill, skating on a cleared pond, snowshoeing along a woods trail, or just walking around town admiring views across the water to what seems like it could be Portugal on the distant blue horizon.
Scallops: A Special Reward
And there are other rewards. One special one right now is: Scallops! Specifically, Maine day-boat scallops. Yes, I know you can probably find scallops all year round, “fresh” and frozen, in fish markets across the country, but these are Maine day-boat scallops, truly the finest kind and their season is right now probably through March. The harvest is tightly controlled by the state and if at any time authorities decide it’s necessary, the harvest will be shut down immediately.
Like many fine things on our tables, Maine day-boat scallops are not cheap—it takes a lot to persuade a fisherman to head out of the harbor on a day when the temperature on land is well below freezing, the water temperature only slightly above, and what we call sea smoke rises to drift across the outer harbor, like wispy fog banners that radiate in the early morning sunlight. So the fishing folk deserve the prices--$16 a pound is the lowest I’ve seen this season, and retailers are selling them for as much as $20 or even $30 a pound. At www.DowneastDayBoat.com, they’re even more expensive, $60 a pound. Still, unless you live in New Hampshire, that’s probably cheaper than a trip to Maine—and Togue Brawn, the enterprising owner of Downeast Dayboat, guarantees her scallops come right off the boat to be shipped within 24 hours of harvest.
I wrote a short piece about scallops for a collection called Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger, and Family (Beacon Press). Edited by Debra Spark and Deborah Joy Corey, the book won a 2022 Readable Feast award for best New England food writing. Profits from the book’s sales support Blue Angel, a nonprofit Debra started in her home town of Castine to combat food insecurity and deliver healthy food from local farmers to those who need it most. (One of these days, when the weather permits, I’m planning a trip over to Castine to talk with Debra about Blue Angel, how it started and how it works.)
Meanwhile, what makes these day-boat scallops so special? One significant factor: because the small boats go out in the morning and return as soon as their daily quota has been reached, scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out that same day, as fresh as a morning in Maine. Deep-sea scallop fishermen, on the other hand, operating from larger boats and staying at sea for three, four, or more days, pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) to keep them white. STPP, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, is “generally recognized as safe,” but scallops are like little sponges and will absorb any available moisture, melting ice, STTP, et al., which also of course increases their weight, a bonus for the vendor. Deep-sea scallops like these are sold—or they should be sold—as “wet” scallops and they really are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet” scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly.
Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them. And another alert: supermarket fish counters do not always know what the term means.
Freshness Means Flavor
Freshness of course means very desirable flavors and textures, and Maine sea scallops are winners on both counts. The taste is sweet, briny, but with no hint of fishiness and the texture should be tender but never mushy.
Understanding these creatures requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is not the actual beast but rather the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of the bivalve. Most bivalves—clams, mussels, and the like—are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon.
As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other waters, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie. My daughter often serves the freshest scallops as a crudo appetizer in her restaurant, slicing them in half horizontally to make two deliciously tender tidbits. A squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño, a little fresh cilantro gives them a delightful Mexican touch, like seviche.
Once you have the best quality day-boat scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. Scallops freeze better than almost any other kind of seafood, and in Maine we often freeze them to prolong the season. But otherwise, if we don’t eat them raw, we cook scallops up in a variety of simple ways.
But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:
o Be sure you get dry scallops.
o Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of each muscle—it’s tough.
o Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels just before you start to cook.
o Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them—they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.
The simplest way to cook scallops is to sear them in a very hot skillet, preferably a black-iron skillet. Set the skillet over medium-high heat while you pat the scallops dry and sprinkle each one with a little salt and pepper. Then when the pan is hot, swirl a tablespoonful of olive oil around the surface and quickly, one by one, set the scallops down in the hot oil. Let them sear off in the heat (you can adjust it down if you think it’s starting to burn), 4 or 5 minutes, until they’re biscuit-brown on one side. Using tongs, flip them over to sear on the other side briefly, then remove to a heated serving platter. Add around a quarter-cup of dry white wine to the pan, bring to a brisque simmer and reduce to a couple of table spoons of liquid, scraping up any pan scraps. Off the heat, swirl a tablespoon of butter in the reduced liquid and pour this over the scallops on the platter. Serve immediately, with a few greens to add color and contrast.
Scallops also go well with any number of spicy sauces. I’m thinking of Moroccan charmoula with its combination of parsley and cilantro plus pungent cumin and spicy red peppers; or nutty Spanish romesco, with sweet and hot peppers combined; or a plain garlicky aioli—but whatever you choose to go with them, make sure that the sweetness of the scallops themselves shines forth.
Dates to Remember: July 24 – 28 in Maine
My friend Richard Goodman is a fine writer and a great writing coach and teacher. I took a memoir writing class with him several years ago and it changed my perspective on my own writing and on life in general. This summer he returns to Maine Media Workshops in the beguiling coastal village of Rockport, to give his acclaimed course on writing memoir and how to use it to advance your skills. This is for all levels of writing ability, from beginners to experienced professionals. You can find out more here: https://www.mainemedia.edu/workshops/item/writing-your-life-a-workshop-in-creative-memoir/
And here’s a brief excerpt from Richard’s book, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (Algonquin), all about claiming a vegetable garden of his own in a tiny French village:
“I had a garden in the south of France. It wasn’t a big garden. Or a sumptuous one. Or a successful one, even, in the end. But that didn’t matter. It was my garden, and I worked it hard and lovingly for the few months I had it—or it had me. This little piece of tan, clayey, French earth, nine meters by thirteen meters (thirty feet by forty-three feet), was in fact the first garden I ever had. It taught me a great deal about myself. ‘Your garden will reveal yourself,’ writes the wise gardener Henry Mitchell. It did. It taught me that I am generous, impatient, hard-working, sentimental, boyish, stubborn and lazy.”
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I adore scallops but don't have them often. However, armed with this info. re dry and wet I'll know what to look for. Not one to buy frozen seafood, with your comments on how well they freeze, I won't hesitate to buy some the next time I spot some! Speaking of Spots...only a few months to go until our local Spot Prawns are arriving off the boats. Our chef friend, Andrea gets them and they are wonderful. Must ask her about scallops!!! Winter isn't all bad!
xo Here is to the scallops, the frigid Maine winds of February and the turning point int he light!