Seafood Lessons at the Yellow UmbrellaPosted: June 3, 2011
Every time that I walk into the Yellow Umbrella seafood shop, I scold myself for not being a more frequent customer of this hidden West End institution. Wednesday was no exception. On a mission to buy soft-shell crabs that I want to learn how to cook, I left instead with a pound and a half of dry-pack sea scallops.
I have yet to learn the names of the guys working behind the counter, but they are so friendly and knowledgable. When I asked for soft-shells, Mr. Yellow Umbrella gladly explained why he didn’t have any that day. As he described, the seafood truck came in from the Rivah, but the soft-shells on the crabs being delivered were beginning to harden. He figured that the recent heat wave had overheated the water in the holding tanks on the crab boats speeding up the molting time for the captured crabs. By the time the crabs made it to on-shore processing, they had likely already shed their shells, and it was all the wholesaler could do to get them on the trucks and headed up to Richmond. Once they reached the Yellow Umbrella, they felt almost ready for steaming and cracking like any other hard-shell crab. Mr. Yellow Umbrella said “no thanks”, but the cynic in me suspects those no longer soft-shelled crabs are being touted as such by some restaurant in town on a supposedly “soft-shell” crab sandwich.
Everything that Mr. Yellow Umbrella said about the molting process was consistent with my research for It’s Soft-Shell Crab Season, and I was grateful for the shop’s high standards. If I am going to try to sauté soft-shells for the first time and convince my children of their delicacy and deliciousness, I want to know that I am actually purchasing a soft shell. With a couple of cooler days coming, I will return to the Yellow Umbrella soon in hopes of finding truly soft shells.
My Wednesday menu plan was scuttled, so I asked for a fresh suggestion. Mr. Yellow Umbrella identified the origin of each type of seafood in the case. I was leaning toward a white fish from Virginia Beach with an unfamiliar name when I spied the scallops. Then began my second lesson of the day.
Although the scallops were shipped from Cape May, New Jersey, Mr. Yellow Umbrella assured me that they were not only fresh but wonderful. The reason: they were “dry-packed”. Foodie that I am not, I had never heard this term used. Apparently most scallops and often other seafood will be dipped in phosphates (usually sodium tripolyphosphate) to help preserve them during their long journey from the ocean to the processing plant to the consumer. The phosphates cause the scallops to soak up a huge amount of water that actually makes these “wet-packed” scallops look bigger, but when they are cooked, they will shrink back down, no doubt to the surprise of the cook. This preservative accounts for the milky liquid that you often see surrounding scallops.
Now that the word about this chemical processing is spreading, the best restaurants and seafood markets are seeking dry-packed scallops for their customers. Naturally, they cost more to be kept as cold and fresh as possible. Having been assured that the difference in the packing really makes a taste difference, I bit the bullet and went home with two containers of scallops wrapped up in a bag of ice (a standard practice at the Yellow Umbrella and a necessity on a day with temperatures soaring to close to 100°).
In addition to the dry-pack lesson, Mr. Yellow Umbrella suggested how to cook these scallops. In a heavy frying pan, heat equal parts butter and olive oil. I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons of each. Once the butter melts, lightly sprinkle the scallops with sea salt and add to the frying pan. (I cooked my 1 1/2 pounds in two batches.) Turn the scallops after they have lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Cook another 2-3 minutes depending on whether you like them medium or medium-rare. After a quick turn of freshly ground pepper, remove from the pan and serve.
How easy is that? And the taste? Sublime. These scallops literally melted in my mouth. I don’t recall ever eating scallops so tender.
True, this was an expensive family dinner, but the four of us were actually enjoying a meal together, a rarer and rarer occurrence with my teenagers. Thanks to the Yellow Umbrella’s seafood lessons, not only am I a more aware consumer of supposedly “fresh” food, I now have a delicious new entrée to serve to guests. The cost of the scallops was definitely money well spent.
All photos by Avad Fan.