American Chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio shared this bit of food wisdom: “Buy the best you can find or afford and don’t over manipulate it. If I cook a scallop, the best praise you can give me is that it tastes like a scallop.”

Islanders got a chance to take the first part of this advice when they headed to Menemsha and bought sea scallops off the boat. In our house, we also took the latter suggestion and prepared our sea scallops simply, and they were delicious.

Sea scallops are of interest to the gourmet and to the marine biologist. Known as Atlantic sea scallops, giant scallops, ocean scallops and smooth scallops, Placopecten magellanicus is a true local delight. Massachusetts is the leading state for the harvesting of sea scallops, with New Bedford at the epicenter, and, luckily for us, a few working boats here and on the Cape.

These briny bivalves are caught off the coast in the deeper and cooler ocean environment, differentiating them in more ways than one from bay scallops, which are found in the shallow waters of our ponds, bays, and estuaries. Sea scallops are also much larger, up to three times the size of bay scallops, live longer, and have a smooth shell that lacks the typical ridges of the bay scallop.

The sea scallop shell can be pink, red, brown and even white, since albinism occurs in up to 10 per cent of the population. These large shells were reportedly used as dishes in earlier days, and can be as large as nine inches across, though four to six is more typical.

Many of us only know this animal through its adductor muscle, the only part that the majority of scallop-eaters consume and whose function is to open and close its shells for movement and protection. There is much more to the animal than just that muscle, but because sea scallops are shucked at sea, we don’t see the discarded parts.

The cast-off viscera of this marine animal include a variety of necessary systems. As a filter feeder, its digestive system helps it consume plant, animal and organic matter obtained from the water it brings in. Its simple nervous system lacks a brain and instead has three ganglia. Reproduction is achieved by male and female gonads — all tossed to the wind before we get our muscle meal. The reproductive systems is where things get complicated. Sperm is released from one scallop to the cavity of another through its water and food intake. The sperm inspires the release of eggs, which are then fertilized inside the animal’s shells and then released as zygotes into the water. The larva is called a “trochophore” for the first few days, then transforms into a “veliger,” after which it will settle as “spat” and will become a mature adult at two years old. This adult is capable of reproducing, but doesn’t really get going until its fourth birthday.

Sea scallops are considered the most fecund of all bivalves. That might be one of the reasons that this fishery is sustainable and it is also well-managed, giving it a stamp of approval for consumption by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and others in the know.

Another guy in the know, Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, had this to say about this valuable bivalve: “Scallops are expensive, so they should be treated with some class. But then, I suppose that every creature that gives his life for our table should be treated with class.” 

I agree, and will look forward to the next time I can score some scallops. Until then, I will have to live on muscle memory.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.