It was around 1993 or 1994 at The Herbfarm (where Poppy/Lionhead chef Jerry Traunfeld was then in the kitchen) when food writer Sara Dickerman found The Birth of Venus in her seafood chowder. As Dickerman remembers it, she was picking shellfish out of a “super elegant” tarragon broth when “there was this beautiful scallop shell just looking like the Botticelli painting.”
The Venus on the half-shell was actually a pink scallop, Dickerman’s first, and it immediately became a symbol of Seattle for her. In fact, the tiny bivalves—a dollop of meat no bigger than a quarter sits in a pastel-colored shell about three inches across—with their endemic harvest, striking appearance and variegated flavor, had become a symbol of Puget Sound’s singular seafood scene.
First found in the 1980s by divers scouring Puget Sound for sea cucumbers and urchins, pink scallops—also called singing scallops or singers—exist in Pacific waters from California to Alaska, but only reach harvestable populations in the Salish Sea’s cold, high-current channels, where they pop around feasting on plankton flush.
Chefs and food lovers swoon over what they see as a perfect balance of multiple shellfish flavors in one small package: a less-sweet sea scallop with a hint of the clam’s nuttiness and a pinch of oyster brine. It all adds up to the taste of “sweet sea,” according to Eden Hill’s chef/owner Maximillian Petty. It also adds up to a tendency to provoke infatuation.
By the 1990s, from restaurants to seafood counters, pink scallops “just seemed to be everywhere,” according to Dickerman. That is, until they disappeared completely—Dickerman moved to California for a few years, and when she came back to the Northwest the scallops had vanished.
One fateful night in 2010 at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Dickerman ran into Nick Jones, the proprietor of Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island and a local food producer known for his insight and tenacity. “Whatever happened to pink scallops?” Dickerman asked Jones. She piqued the interest of the right person. Jones, who is “prone to falling in deep on things,” Dickerman says, got to work investigating. He found out that the pink scallops disappeared from the market for nearly two decades because of a fairly simple reason: They are very difficult to harvest.
“They live in high current areas, so it’s extremely challenging from a diving standpoint,” says diver-master Joe Stephens, who partnered with Jones to bring the fishery back. “I have an extremely difficult time finding divers who can hack it.” But even after Jones and Stephens found capable divers willing to descend 60 to 120 feet into the cold, ripping channels and gather the scallops, there was another ensuing battle. When Jones told the state he wanted to bring the harvest of Chlamys rubida back, they shut it down. A muddled regulatory battle involving certified water, diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, fecal coliform and a ton of paperwork followed, stretching out for over six years before Jones Family Farms made their first delivery this February.
Since then, it’s been full steam ahead. They now have two boats and four divers and pink scallops are again popping up all over town. Fragile beauties, they only last about 48 hours out of water, which means retail outlets with tanks are their best purveyors; look for them at Uwajimaya, Central Market and Wild Salmon Market at Fisherman’s Terminal.
Meanwhile a growing list of restaurants are buying the scallops, includes Canlis, The Herbfarm, Terra Plata, Blueacre, The Willows Inn, Bastille, Stoneburner, White Swan Public House, Pair, L’Oursin and the aforementioned Eden Hill, where Petty is one of their most creative and enthusiastic proponents.
“We’ve just been testing everything,” the chef says. “I’m trying to get (my cooks) to understand how delicate and beautiful they are, with the sack and all the flavors in parts. So we’ll steam them, we’ll bake them, we’ll serve them raw. We’ve done it every which way. It’s constant experimentation.” He’s in the midst of a new experiment that pairs smoked, lightly poached scallops with his maple-braised brisket.
And much like Dickerman two decades ago, and the growing legion of cooks around town, Petty is enamored with the resurrected pink scallop: “I love them. I’m super dorky excited about them. We’re lucky and I’m lucky to be in this industry at this time.”
Interested in preparing these little beauties at home? Try this recipe from Sara Dickerman:
Pink Scallops with Cream, Tarragon and Ikura
To store pink scallops before cooking, place them in a colander and rinse with cold water. Lay a clean kitchen towel atop the scallops and cover it with ice. Place the whole colander set-up into a large bowl and into the refrigerator. Cooking pink scallops is very like steaming clams or mussels, though the pretty shellfish takes a little longer to cook than the others. The scallops should be easy to pop off of the shell with a little pressure from a spoon; if not they need a little longer time. This recipe calls for salmon roe, or ikura, to provide a bright pop of saltiness in a deliciously sweet and fragrant cream broth. If you are at a specialty store that carries pink scallops it is likely to carry ikura in jars as well.
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 pound pink scallops in shell
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup finely chopped shallot (about 1 large)
1 sprig tarragon, plus 1 tablespoon chopped leaves, for garnish
¾ cup light bodied white wine
¾ cup cream
1 4-inch piece of lemon zest (use a peeler to get just the yellow part, avoiding the white pith
4 tablespoons ikura (salmon roe)
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Lemon juice to taste.
Crusty bread to serve
To clean scallops, place them in a large bowl. Run cold water over them to fill most of the bowl. Keeping the bowl in the sink, shake it bit to jostle the scallops and turn them over one another a bit to loosen any debris. Pour out the water and repeat, draining thoroughly when done.
To cook, have a medium bowl ready near the stove. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add in the chopped shallot and the sprig of tarragon, plus a pinch of salt. Cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the scallops and stir to coat with the shallot butter. Pour in the white wine. When the wine begins to boil, cover the pot and cook for 2 minutes. Lift the lid and stir in the cream and the lemon zest, cover again and cook for 2 more minutes. Stir the scallops once again: some of the shallots will have opened. Cover and cook for two more minutes. Lift lid and check the scallops, removing to the bowl any scallops that have loosened themselves from the shell. Continue cooking the remaining scallops until they are all done, about 2 minutes. Remove all the scallops from the broth and let it cook for 1 more minute. Taste the broth and add salt, pepper, and lemon to taste.
To serve, spoon the broth evenly among four bowls. Divide the scallops evenly among the four bowls. Garnish the broth in each bowl with ikura, and sprinkle tarragon on each bowl. Serve with crusty bread