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What to look for when choosing scallops

At a time of year when we're celebrating fresh Dungeness crab in all its seasonal glory, let's not forget some of the other gifts from the sea.

Such as scallops, for example.

At the market, you'll find two choices: the large sea scallops, caught miles from shore and available year-round, and tiny bay scallops, which are harvested from shallow coastal bays and estuaries as far north as Cape Cod all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Cooks always can find bay scallops in their frozen state, but between November and March, you might actually be able to obtain freshly harvested bay scallops.

Because it has become a common practice to soak shucked scallops in a sodium tripolyphosphate solution — which can undermine the cooking and eating quality of scallops — it's important to ask at the time of purchase whether the scallops are preservative-free. The terminology to keep in mind is "dry-packed," which means that the scallops have NOT been dipped in the dreaded solution.

Of course, "fresh" isn't all it's cracked up to be if scallops have been sitting around in a fishmonger's case for a couple of days. Indeed, if you can't get your hands on truly fresh-out-of-the-water bay or sea scallops, your next best option is to buy them while still frozen. That way, you'll be guaranteed of a good-quality offering. Then, simply thaw in your refrigerator overnight, rinse and dry thoroughly before cooking.

This time of year, I like to pull from my frozen cache of scallops and drop them into simmering stews and chowders. Their sweet and tender characteristics are sublime. The only caution I'll add is to not overcook these special morsels, or they become fairly tough.

They're also wonderful in simple sautes, with a bit of butter and a splash of wine. Although rich sauces add extra fat and calories to the plate, they are delightful backdrops to the scallops' delicate flavor.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.