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.
And catch shad we Americans have done. Centuries ago, rivers reportedly ran black with the 3- to 5-pound, silvery-green fish. In Colonial times shad remained so abundant that Native Americans used it as fertilizer as well as food. Yet today, thanks to intense overfishing as well as pollution and habitat destruction, it only appears briefly in markets, home kitchens and restaurants.
If you’ve never experienced shad, you may wonder how this bony creature ended up being fished to near-extinction. 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 chocked full of delicate, reddish, roly-poly eggs. When broiled, sautéed or poached, these eggs become firm, pale pink and delectable.
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. Some swear by prolonged baking, leaving whole shad in the oven for as long as five hours, or until the bones dissolve. 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.
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.
If you want to eliminate the stress of cooking altogether, drop by an East Coast shad festival. Starting in April, river communities from Virginia to Massachusetts throw fetes 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 everything from sautéed shad roe to shad wraps and chowders.
“Shad has a kind of cult following, with people driving long distances to get it,” says Dan Whitaker, owner of Lambertville Station in Lambertville, N.J. For 30 years, Whitaker has participated in the town’s annual Shad Festival. There he serves grilled blackened shad from a sidewalk stall as well as in his historic restaurant.
As Whitaker 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.
Whether you live on or merely visit the East Coast this spring, keep an eye out for this delicacy. Rich, juicy, sweetly nutty and with an abundance of healthful fatty acids, shad is a seasonal treat not to be missed.
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.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photos: Top, Shad being filleted. Bottom, Prepared shad fillets.
Credit: Kathy Hunt