Chris Merl’s life on the water started over 30 years ago, first diving for oysters, then farming them. Along the way, after learning the ropes from others, he segued into scalloping. His wife, Denice Lapierre, went from picking oysters and digging clams to running the couple’s growing business.
They fish out of Provincetown on the F/V Isabel & Lilee — named for their daughters.
Scallops are Cape Cod candy. “If I don’t have them for a few days, I begin to crave them,” says Denice. They’re simple to prepare, too. “I love that, within four minutes, dinner is on the table,” she adds. “You can’t beat that.”
Day boat sea scallops have an ocean-sweet flavor and silky texture. On the Cape, fishermen, scientists, and regulators have worked together to manage where and how to harvest them sustainably.
There is a big-business version of scalloping, out of New Bedford. But here, only 20 small boat fishermen do it, according to the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. The local harvest is about a half million pounds of scallops a year.
This is hard work — more of a calling then a traditional 9-to-5 job. “And with a way better office view,” says Chris Merl. Day boat scallopers work no more than 3 miles off the coast for no more than 30 hours at a time, with a catch limit of 600 pounds of meats per trip. The vessels’ custom dredges are designed with rings to avoid bycatch, such as sea turtles, and to minimize ocean habitat degradation.
Because scallops cannot close their shells tightly the way other bivalves do, they spoil easily, so they all get shucked at sea. The skilled crewman swiftly pries open each large fan-shaped orange shell by hand, strips out the viscera, and flips the translucent adductor muscle — the snowy nugget — into a bucket for a rinse in sea water.
Our local day boat scallops are labeled “dry,” even though they are glistening fresh. “Wet” scallops are treated with a chemical solution to extend their shelf life — though it mars their texture and mutes their flavor. If you try to sear treated scallops, they weep in the pan and won’t ever achieve that distinctive caramelization that makes for a great pan sauce.
Suspect your scallops have been treated if they are sitting in a pool of excess water, have a bland aroma, and are uniformly white in color. Untreated scallops come in a range of colors, from snowy white to blushed pink and the occasional coral from the female’s roe.
Covid hit the livelihoods of fishing families hard. When restaurants closed, the entire wholesale market was disrupted. Then the state allowed direct sales to consumers. “We set up dockside pop-ups, church pickups, and sold straight from the cooler,” Denice says. The direct access was a boon for buyers and sellers. The Wellfleet Shellfish Farmers Market brought the community to the pier to get to know their fishermen. But even a gregarious advocate of the independent fishing life like Denice says not all the changes have been easy.
“We are now on a schedule that no fisherman should be on,” she says, “following the markets, not the weather.”
If you find cooking seafood intimidating, think of scallops as your gateway choice. Less is best here. Scallops are nearly all protein, making them very easy and fast to prepare. A hot skillet, a knob of butter, and coarse salt and pepper are all you really need.
I pinch off the foot — the small bit of muscle attached on the side. It’s edible, but a bit dense and chewy. The scallops sear to a crisp golden brown on one side in just 3 minutes. The flip side needs only about a minute or it will overcook. Once out of the pan, any of the browned bits left behind are the foundation of a quick pan sauce made with a splash of lemon juice, wine, broth, tomato, cream, or even water.
In the summer, ceviche is my day boat scallop recipe of choice.
Ceviche is found throughout Latin America with many variations. In all of them, the fish is “cooked” by the acidity of fresh citrus juice. (That bottled stuff has no place here.) Scallops welcome the brightness of lime juice. Although adding a bit of heat from chiles is standard, too much will step on their delicate flavor. Ceviche can be served within minutes of tossing or left to marinate overnight. But leave it too long and the scallops will get tough and cottony.
One of the best things about making ceviche is the marinating liquid that develops as it sits. It is delicious and is believed to be both an aphrodisiac and a hangover cure. Peruvians call it leche de tigre — tiger’s milk. I like to serve it on the side in shot glasses.
Day Boat Scallop Ceviche
Serves 2 to 4
½ small red onion (1/3 cup minced)
½ jalapeño chili
2 tsp. kosher salt
¾ cup water
½ lb. day boat sea scallops
¼ cup lime juice (about 3 limes)
1 Persian cucumber
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup cherry or grape tomatoes
2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
Tortilla chips or small lettuce leaves for serving
Mince the red onion. Seed and mince the chili. Dice the . Slice or quarter the cherry tomatoes.
Put the red onion, chili, and one teaspoon of the salt in a mortar, measuring cup, or bowl. Muddle with a pestle (or large spoon) to release their juices. Cover with the water and set aside for at least 10 and up to 30 minutes.
If there is a small, tough muscle on the side of the scallop, pinch it off. Slice each scallop in half, or in thirds, if large, crosswise, to make discs about ¼ inch thick. (Or, they can be quartered, if that’s your mood.)
Toss the scallops with the lime juice and remaining teaspoon of salt. Add 2 tablespoons of the onion soaking water to the scallops, then drain the onion and chili in a fine mesh strainer. Add the onion, chili, cucumbers, and olive oil, and toss. Cover and set aside for 15 minutes or up to 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Season the tomatoes with some salt and scatter them, with the cilantro, over the ceviche. If you like things spicy, top with more minced chile.
Serve with chips or lettuce and offer the collected juices in small glasses on the side
Day-boat direct: The Outer Cape connection
At the Orleans Farmers Market:
(Or directly online at capecodscallop.com)
F/V Isabel & Lilee, Chris Merl and Denice Lapierre, of Wellfleet
At the Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet farmers markets:
Helltown wild-caught day-boat scallops
Beau and Kathleen Gribbin, of Provincetown
At the Wellfleet Shellfish Farmers Markets:
Pick up at Holbrook Oyster in North Eastham
F/V Roen Kiel, Damian Parkington, of Wellfleet
Wellfleet’s Jesse Rose also sells direct off of his boat, F/V Midnight Our, at Wychmere Harbor Pier in Harwich Port.