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East Coast Festivals Show What’s Special About Shad

Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

Perhaps no fish has a more fabled and forgotten place in American history than shad, a seasonal springtime fish that can be found up and down the East Coast where freshwater rivers meet the ocean.

An oily fish that lives in saltwater but spawns in fresh water, shad was a staple of the Lenape Native Americans’ diet as well as a fertilizer for their crops. George Washington supplemented his income with an ingenious netting method that captured spawning shad running through the Potomac River in front of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. In addition to selling the fish, he used them to supplement food for those enslaved on his plantation.

Shad gaining favor from East Coast to West

Through the years, Chef Walter Staib has had shad on and off the menu at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where he is the executive chef. He has served boneless shad and shad roe, which is pocketed in a lobe and considered a delicacy by aficionados.

“The problem is that people don’t really know about it — including new, younger chefs. It also has an unusual though delicious taste,” Staib said. “Twenty years ago, I did a lot with shad and had regular customers who started calling when the runs began, wanting to know what we’d have on the menu.”

The chef’s love of the fish prompted him to feature it on his PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” He said the fish was a favorite throughout the 18th century, including among the founding fathers who gathered at the original City Tavern during the Continental Congress and afterward when the city served as America’s first capital.

Washington’s own relationship with shad was a lifelong one. Legend has it British troops netted the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia to divert the shad run from where Washington’s starving troops were encamped downstream at Valley Forge. The commander in chief’s own taste for shad was legendary, and his steward and cook often sought to procure the earliest fish for his breakfast table — at considerable cost.

In those days, shad was an abundant fish, making the fortunes of many an East Coast river town, notably among them Fishtown, Pa. When overfishing for food and fertilizer reduced stocks, the fish went out of fashion.

Today, the fish is making a comeback, although declining stocks are not all that prevents shad from regaining its place as the quintessential American fish.

“Shad fisheries are rebounding because of regulations that have moved gill nets offshore,” said Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development for Samuels & Son Seafood in Philadelphia. Gill nets, which had traditionally been strung across river mouths, prevented shad from spawning and made them easy prey for the striped bass that find them so tasty.

The larger issue, Lasprogata said, is that shad is strongly flavored because of its high oil content and has an unusual bone structure that makes filleting a challenge.

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Place the fillets with their thick (head) end facing you and perpendicular to the work surface. Using a sharp filleting knife, cut into the fillet along one side of the darker red center line starting about 4 inches (10 cm) back and cutting toward the head end. Credit: Steve Legato

Samuels & Son has specialty shad filleters, and its process was featured in the book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” by Aliza Green. (See slideshow above for directions on how to fillet shad.) Specialty shad filleters are also a feature of the many shad festivals that still take place during the small window of opportunity to enjoy the fish.

“There is an urban legend that shad can be roasted whole in low heat for a long period of time, and the bones will soften enough to simply eat, but I’ve never tried it,” Lasprogata said.

In Essex, Conn., John Mackuck is one of the few, if not only, remaining  shad smokers, using a closely guarded old recipe that starts with a salt, sugar and molasses brine then hot smoking with hickory, apple and cherry woods.

On the West Coast, with most harvested shad used for canning, some Pacific Coast chefs are putting shad on the menu.

“It does not have much of a following here in the Pacific Northwest due to the popularity of salmon,” said chef Thomas Dunklin of Three Degrees in Portland, Ore. “However, I welcome the opportunity to educate my guests about it.

I like the delicacy of it.  The roe is amazing served up seared. “

Shad roe and fillets can be sampled at various, mostly East Coast, festivals to which devotees flock. The shad festivals start earlier the further south you go and generally are held by community organizations.
You’ll find a shad bake virtually anywhere the ocean meets fresh water.

The Grifton Shad Festival in Grifton, N.C., has been around since 1970 and is generally held in early April.  Lambertville, N.J., has a renowned ShadFest and art show that takes place yearly in late April. The Shad Derby in Windsor, Conn., is usually held in mid-May and has crowned a Shad Derby Queen every year since 1966. In Essex, Conn., the Shad Bake has taken place since 1955, and organizers say they fillet and roast between 300 pounds and 350 pounds of shad yearly. This year’s Shad Bake will be June 7 in the Connecticut river town.

These festivals are a great way to sample shad prepared at the hands of loving experts, but if you hurry can still get your hands on shad fillets or the highly prized roe. Fillet of shad can be had for roughly $15 per pound. Try the recipes below, which feature simple, tasty ways to enjoy this all-American fish.

Shad Roe in Caper Butter

This recipe by Chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern is a simple preparation for shad roe, considered a delicacy for centuries. The method is also demonstrated in this video.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

1 shad roe lobe

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Lemon wedges, as desired, for garnish

Directions

1. Season the shad roe with salt and pepper.

2. Melt butter in a large fry pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add roe and gently sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over with care once using a spatula.

3. Cover the pan and let the roe cook in the butter for about 6 or 7 minutes, or until browned on the outside but still tender and a little rare inside.

4. Add the capers, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and mix.

5. To serve, place roe onto a plate and spoon melted butter sauce over the roe. Sprinkle with parsley, and garnish with lemon wedges.

Shad Scaloppini With Fiddlehead Ferns & Lemon

Because shad is a delicate fish, Chef Walter Staib says he likes to have his greens and all the ingredients for the shad itself ready and waiting. Instead of Fiddlehead ferns you could prepare baby spinach, ramps, or dandelion greens with this dish as well.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the fiddleheads:

1 tablespoon salt

8 cups water

1 pound fiddle head ferns, washed and trimmed of any brown spots

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the shad:

Pinch nutmeg, freshly ground

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 pound shad, cut into 8 medallions

½ cup flour

1 egg, beaten well

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small lemon, peeled and sliced thinly

1 small lime, peeled and sliced thinly

Directions 

For the fiddleheads:

1. Have a large bowl ready with 1 cup of ice and 3 cups of cold water.

2. Bring the salt and water to a boil in a large pot and add the fiddlehead ferns. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes then remove from the water with a slotted spoon.

3. Add the fiddlehead ferns to the bowl of ice water and allow to sit for 1 minute. Drain and set the ferns aside.

4. Heat a large fry pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil.

5. Add the fiddlehead ferns and stir well. Cook until they begin to get lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and then spoon on to a platter.

For the shad:

1. Combine the nutmeg, salt and pepper, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow, large dish. Marinate fish in the mixture for no more than 5 minutes. Leaving the fish in longer will result in the protein breaking down.

2. Remove fish and discard marinade. Dredge each medallion in flour. Shake excess flour off medallions. Dredge medallions in egg, coating well. Shake off any excess and set aside on a plate.

3. Heat a large fry pan with grapeseed oil and butter over medium-high heat and add the shad medallions. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side.

4. Remove shad medallions from the pan and layer onto the fiddlehead ferns.

5. Place the lime and lemon slices around the dish for garnish.

Main photo: Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine



Zester Daily contributor Ramin Ganeshram is a journalist and professional chef trained at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, where she has also worked as a chef instructor. She has won seven Society of Professional Journalist awards and been nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Bert Greene Award. Ganeshram's books include "Sweet Hands: Island Cooking From Trinidad & Tobago," "America I Am: Pass It Down Cookbook" (with Jeff Henderson) and "Stir It Up." Her book "Future Chefs" won an IACP Cookbook of the year award and she is the ghostwriter of the best selling Sweetie Pies Cookbook. Her book Cooking With Coconut will be out from Workman/Storey in December 2016.

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