Flash, bang, scallop: Skye Gyngell gives the hard shell

They're sweet, flavoursome and only take a minute to cook. Why aren't we making more of a shellfish that thrives in Britain's coastal waters? By Skye Gyngell

Sunday 16 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Plump and wonderfully succulent, scallops are one of the sweetest foods that come from the sea. Even better is the fact that the cold water off the English coast produces a particular flavour that makes locally sourced scallops some of the tastiest around.

Wild king scallops are the largest and can live up to 20 years; they are best eaten from October to March. Wild queen scallops are smaller and best eaten from December to February and June to August. As with all fish, it is best to avoid eating them outside of these periods so that stocks can be replenished.

Although some people recommend removing the roe, also known as the coral, I find it one of the nicest parts of the animal to eat. Its vibrant orange colour is beautiful to behold and the texture contrasts wonderfully with the bouncy flesh of the scallop. Scallops do, however, have a little attachment on the side opposite the roe that should be removed – unattractive and chewy, it takes a quick snip to take it off.

Scallops need only the shortest cooking time in oil over a very high heat. I think a minute for the first side is adequate – just enough to achieve a nice golden crust – and then turned for only a moment to finish off the underside.

Scallops' clean flavour and firm texture goes well with so many things. I love them served with other shellfish, such as clams and mussels, but they work brilliantly with just about any firm-fleshed fish or prawns. They are also good with pulses, cured meats such as Parma or Bayonne ham, as well as spicy Indian and Asian flavours.

I like to eat scallops in many ways, but my favourite is as simply as possible – unadulterated – with just a squeeze or two of lemon juice. One final word of advice: eat scallops when they are piping hot; they are not nearly so delicious when they have cooled to room temperature.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Scallops and clams with purple basil, white wine and chilli

This is a dish that should be cooked at the very last minute – there is nothing difficult about it. Just pay attention during its cooking and be careful not to over-salt, as the clams already have a taste of the sea about them.

Serves 4

25ml/1fl oz olive oil
16 scallops
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 dried red chilli, crumbled
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
400 ml/14fl oz good-quality dry white wine
200g/7oz clams
30ml/1fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch of purple basil

Place a wide, shallow-sided saucepan over a medium heat and add the oil. Season the scallops lightly on both sides and, when the pan is hot, add the chilli, garlic and scallops. Cook for a minute then add the wine and clams. Turn the scallops over at the same time, allowing the wine to bubble and spit slightly.

Place a lid on the saucepan and cook until the clams are just open. Pour in the 30ml of olive oil and throw in the purple basil, stir and taste. Adjust the seasoning if needed by adding a small pinch of salt – the chilli gives it enough warmth without the addition of black pepper.

Spoon into bowls and serve with a slice of toast. At Petersham, we add a dollop of aioli too.

Grilled scallops with roasted sweet potato, tomatoes and salsa verde

Scallops, sweet potatoes and tomatoes all have a gentle sweetness about them – but what saves this dish from being too sweet is the herby saltiness of the salsa verde.

Serves 4

For the salsa verde

1 small bunch of basil, leaves only
1 small bunch of mint, leaves only
A handful of rocket, leaves only
A small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
3 sprigs of rosemary, leaves only
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
40ml/11/2fl oz red-wine vinegar
3 anchovy fillets
1tbsp capers, well rinsed
220ml/71/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the roasted vegetables

2 sweet potatoes
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch of thyme
1/2 tsp dried red chilli flakes
350g/111/2oz little cherry or plum tomatoes

For the scallops

25ml1fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
16 scallops
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Start by making the salsa verde. Roughly chop the herbs and combine together in a bowl. Add the garlic, mustard and vinegar, stir well to combine. Finely chop the anchovies and capers and add to the bowl. Pour over the olive oil and stir. Let the ingredients sit together for five minutes or so – the flavours will change slightly as they get to know one another. Taste and adjust as necessary – at this stage, add the salt and pepper. Set aside.

For the roasted vegetables, heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into generous-sized chunks. Place in a roasting tray and pour over the olive oil. Scatter over the thyme and chilli flakes and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Roast for 20 minutes then remove and add the whole tomatoes. Return to the oven and turn down the heat to 180C/350F/Gas4 and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are caramelised and soft, and the tomatoes have burst their skin.

For the scallops, place a large non-stick pan over a high heat. Add the olive oil and, when hot, add the scallops, cook for a minute on one side, then turn and cook for 40 seconds on the other side.

To serve, arrange the warm tomatoes and sweet potato on a plate, place the scallops on top and spoon over the salsa verde.

Scallops with white polenta and chilli oil

Although one whole chilli is used in this recipe, the seeds are removed and the flesh very finely diced – the result is the gentlest possible heat and a surprising sweetness, and the soft creamy white polenta also provides a lovely foil for any unexpected heat.

Allow five scallops per person as a main course or three if you are intending to eat something afterwards. Once cooked, polenta will sit happily in a bain-marie for a couple of hours – so you can make it well in advance.

Serves 4

For the chilli oil

1 red chilli
Sea salt and a little freshly ground black pepper
120ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

For the polenta

1,000ml/35fl oz pints water
The zest of one unwaxed lemon
250g/8oz white polenta
40g/2oz unsalted butter
Sea salt and ground black pepper

For the scallops

20 scallops, roe intact, little muscle with black thread running through it removed
25ml/1fl oz olive oil
4 wedges of lemon, to serve

Using a small sharp knife, cut the chilli in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Cut it into the finest possible strips then cut across to create tiny cubes. Place in a bowl, add a small pinch of salt and pour over the olive oil. Set aside.

For the polenta, pour the water into a saucepan and bring to a vigorous boil. Add the lemon zest and pour in the polenta in one steady stream. Turn the heat down a little and stir constantly until the polenta begins to thicken and cook through – this will take 15-20 minutes. Whisk in the butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Pour into a clean bowl and place, covered, in a bain-marie until you are ready to serve.

For the scallops, season each one generously with salt and pepper. Place a non-stick pan over a medium to high heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the scallops and cook for one minute, before turning and cooking on the other side for 40 seconds.

To serve, spoon the polenta into bowls, arrange the scallops on top and finish with the chilli oil. Serve at once with a wedge of lemon.

Scallops with radicchio, shallots and grated egg

Serves 4

2 eggs
1 head of radicchio or trevisse lettuce
2 shallots
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3tbsp red-wine vinegar
60ml/21/2fl oz mild olive oil
12 scallops
20ml/1fl oz olive oil

Place a pan of water on to boil. Place the eggs in the pan and boil until hard. This should take about eight minutes. Break up the lettuce, discarding the outer layer; wash and gently pat dry. Peel the eggs and grate on the finest side of your grater.

Now peel and chop the shallots finely. Place them in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and pour over the vinegar. Stir to combine and then pour in the olive oil. Stir again and set aside while you cook the scallops.

Place a non-stick pan on the stove over a high heat. Pour in the oil and season the scallops lightly with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, add the scallops and cook on one side without turning for one minute, then turn and cook for 40 seconds, and remove.

To serve, arrange the salad leaves on a plate, place the scallops on top, spoon over the shallot dressing and finish with the grated egg. Serve immediately.

The Forager, by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the best scallops

Hand-dived scallops are generally the largest and best quality. As this method causes minimal disruption to the marine environment, it is considered the most sustainable. Scallop dredging is one of the most damaging, as the heavy metal baskets scrape along the seabed and scoop up other marine life.

Keltic Seafare Scallops picked off the west coast of Scotland. Keltic sends its catch early evening for overnight delivery. Tel: 01349 864 087

The Wet Fish Shop A family fishmonger in Lyme Regis selling hand-dived scallops from Dorset's Lyme Bay. Tel: 01297 444 205

Shellseekers This Dorset-based business sells its hand-dived scallops at Borough Market, London, SE1 (Thursday-Friday)

Hand Picked Shellfish Company sells its hand-dived scallops every Wednesday at Corn Street Market, Bristol. Tel: 07968 176 485

www.scottishfarmersmarkets.co.uk is a good source of information for scallops available at farmers' markets.

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