Shad is fresh in markets on the East Coast for a limited time.By Kathy Hunt
Forget the nesting songbirds, flowering trees and sunny days. For seafood fans on the East Coast, springtime means the return of the rare seafood delight known as shad.
Each spring, this member of the herring family migrates up the Atlantic coastline to spawn in the rivers from which it originated. Leaving Florida in February, it ends its journey in May in Vermont. During this period, the rich, omega-3-laden fish is at its plumpest and tastiest. Unquestionably, it's also at its best for catching and cooking.
Healthy and full of delicious caviar-like roe
If you've never experienced shad, you may wonder how this bony creature ended up being fished to near-extinction because of overfishing. Among shad enthusiasts, however, there is no question. Possessing firm, oily meat and a mildly sweet yet distinctly savory flavor, it has long rivaled salmon, char and sablefish in taste. High in omega-3 fatty acids, it likewise rivals salmon, sardines and anchovies for the title of most heart-healthful fish.
Although I am partial to its compact fillets, most diners gravitate to its roe. Dubbed "the foie gras of the fish world" by food writer Mark Bittman, shad roe has a moist creaminess and gentle nutty tang that leaves diners clamoring for more. Unlike the tiny, individual spheres of traditional caviar, shad roe consists of two transparent, liver-shaped sacs chock-full of delicate, reddish, roly-poly eggs. When broiled, sautéed or poached, these eggs become firm, pale pink and delectable.
How to deal with the bones
While the roe may be a breeze to prepare, the fish itself can be quite exasperating. Notorious for its complicated skeletal structure and profusion of tiny bones, it is a challenge to clean and fillet. Tweezers, pliers and filleting knives all get a workout with this guy.
Over the centuries, cooks have conjured up innumerable techniques for dealing with the small, pesky bones. Bone strategy #1: Some swear by prolonged baking, leaving whole shad in the oven for as long as five hours, or until the bones dissolve. Bone strategy #2: Others endorse cooking the fish with sorrel. The oxalic acid in this tart herb supposedly causes the bones to melt. Cognac reputedly does the same trick.
Bone strategy #3: Of all the tactics, I prefer the simplest one. Whenever possible, I leave deboning to a skilled fishmonger and buy already-cut shad fillets. By following suit, you too will save time and spare your temper.
Where to find shad
If you want to eliminate the stress of cooking altogether, drop by an East Coast shad festival. Starting in early spring, river communities from Virginia to Massachusetts throw fêtes to mark the anadromous fish's return. At these celebrations you can watch shad cleaning and cooking demonstrations, compete in shad cooking contests and sample dishes such as sautéed shad roe to shad wraps and chowders.
How to cook shad
As Dan Whitaker, owner of New Jersey's Lambertville Station, points out, shad responds well to both Cajun seasonings and grilling. It also performs nicely when sautéed, pan-fried, broiled or baked. While it pairs beautifully with such ingredients as apples, bacon, celery, lemons, onions, potatoes, shallots and tarragon, it likewise tastes fabulous adorned with nothing more than a dash of salt and ground black pepper.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 4- to 6-ounce shad fillets, bones removed
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Handful of fresh cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
2 lemons, cut into quarters
1. In a large frying pan, heat the oil and butter on medium.
2. Season the shad fillets with equal amounts of salt and pepper and then place the fillets skin-side down in the pan. Cook until the skin browns, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip over the fillets and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Sprinkle equal amounts of cilantro over the fillets and serve with lemon wedges.
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