Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shad Of Spring (Fish Richness vs. Frugal Fatigue)

American Shad

        Last weekend, feeling the first brief warmth in the air (a false harbinger of spring, as it turned out) and seeing the local fish market's sign enthusiastically offering shad and shad roe, we decided to discard one of our many 2008-11 (and counting) Depression Economies and purchase some of each.

        A long time ago, under a friend's influence and expert guidance, we learned a great deal about fish and fish cookery.  We prepared different types of fish (purchased from a very knowledgeable and sympathetic fishmonger in Brooklyn Heights) in a sort of Larousse Gastronomique assortment of ways daily, and I spent much time in my law school classes writing lists of fish names in every European language in my notebook during lectures.  I would perform formidably in a Jeopardy Fish Information session.

Thomas Eakins, Shad Fishermen (Setting The Net), Gloucester, New Jersey, 1881

        When we finally arrived at the shad and shad roe junction (or, rather, port of call) on our fish journey, we made a full stop and took a long pause, as is appropriate when encountering a major event, a masterpiece.  Shad is truly an excellent fish.  It is rich and complex in flavor, with a silky and highly appealing texture, and its roe can rightfully claim its place at the head of the fish egg line, which is saying quite a lot in view of the really exquisite qualities of this branch of the food chain, which apart from the "star" fish like sturgeon, obviously, shad and salmon, is often discarded by fishermen as surplusage unsuitable for commercial use. (N.b.: If your fishmonger will save you flounder roe, or the roe of other "lesser" fish, you can easily live on it like a king forever, inexpensively and far more healthily and happily than you would, say, on ramen noodles, unless cardboard is for you an essential food group).

        Our re-encounter with the shad and its roe was really inspiring and in light of our long separation we cooked both in very traditional ways: the shad itself a la meuniere and the roe sauted in bacon drippings and served alongside the bacon that provided them.

        Those basic  recipes are easily found, so I thought I would provide these three additional methods of cooking the fish, which are less common and which may appeal to you, as they do to me. 

        Two additional points of information that might be of interest: 

        Shad are thought to be unique among the fishes in having evolved an ability to detect ultrasound (sound at frequencies above 20 kHz, which is the limit of human hearing.); and 

        Shad serve a peculiar symbolic role in Virginia state politics. On the year of every gubernatorial election, would-be candidates, lobbyists, campaign workers, and reporters gather in the town of Wakefield, Virginia for Shad Planking.


Shad Run by Howard Breslin, New York, Thomas Crowell, 1955 (A historical romance novel set in my neck of the woods where shad do run. Breslin also wrote Bad Day At Hondo, the source material for the movie Bad Day At Black Rock.) 

        Remember -- shad and shad roe are a seasonal delicacy and it's spring (almost).  And shad and shad roe are not that expensive.

La Mairie (Registry Office), Tressan (Herault), France, 1920s

L'Alose a la Tressanaise 
Shad cooked in the style of the village of Tressan
From Mediterranean Seafood by Alan Davidson
serves 6

Reader Note:  The following recipe belongs to the "classic" tradition of shad recipes, which employ  long cooking methods to"melt" the shad's network of small, fine bones.  In today's fish markets, shad fillets are readily available, which makes prolonged cooking unnecessary and undesirable for this well-flavored, but still delicate fish. That being said, the flavors incorporated in this recipe have much to commend them and its historical details are fascinating.  If  you enjoy reading old recipes, as I do, this one has plenty of "local color" and I think an adept cook could easily adapt it for modern kitchens.

        Les Plats regionaux de France by Austin de Croze was one of the first (1928) and best compilations of its kind.  The original, printed on paper of atrocious quality, has for long been unobtainable, but a handsome facsimile edition appeared in 1977 under the imprint of Daniel Morcrette.

        Austin de Croze observes that the shad is a "real packet of spiny bones", yet has flesh of unrivalled quality.  Hence the importance of knowing how to prepare it correctly.  This recipe was furnished by M. Francis Marre, Chimiste-Expert at the Court of Appeal in Paris,  whose home was at Tressan, where shad fished in the Herault are prepared in this way.

        Catch a shad weighing nearly 1 1/2 kg (3 1/4 lb) and dip it into boiling water for a minute as soon as possible after capture.  Scale it with care, cut off fins, tail and head and open the belly with a pair of scissors and gut the fish completely. Wash the inside very carefully with water to which vinegar has been added. Next, remove the backbone, cut the fish into sections about 8 to 10 cm (3" to 4") in thickness and leave these to soak for two hours, also in water to which vinegar has been added.

        Take an earthenware marmite with a close-fitting lid, line the bottom with strips of bacon and add the shad steaks, which should come up to about two thirds of the height of the vessel. Add also 100 g (3 1/2 oz) of ham (not smoked), cut into small cubes; 75 g (2 1/2 oz) of fresh pork rind; 8 bay leaves and a bouquet garni; salt and pepper to taste; two sliced lemons; a wineglassful (150 ml or 5 fl oz) of good brandy; and 1/2 litre (17 1/2 fl oz) of dry white wine. Put the cover on the marmite, sealing it down with bread dough, and take it to the bread baker, in whose oven it should remain for at least 8 hours. At the end of this time you will find that the small bones have 'melted' and that your fish, reposing in a thick jelly, constitutes 'as delicious a dish as  you could dream of having'.  (Most readers will have to use their own oven, which should be set at very slow -- 240 F; gas 1/4.)

Seared Shad Fillets With Granny Smith Vinaigrette
From The Dean & Deluca Cookbook

        Tart Granny Smith apples act as the acidic agent here lightening the richness of the shad with a marvelous vinaigrette.  And we employ an unusual technique to get the most out of your shad fillets; cooking the dark meat of the fillet separately, until it's crunchy.  The result is an almost bacon-like quality that enables the shad itself to stand in for the real bacon that's often paired with this dish.

Serves 4

2 whole filleted shad (about 1 pound each)
salt and pepper to taste
instant flour for dredging (preferably Wondra)
1/2 Granny Smith apple, cored and finely diced (skin on)
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons hazelnut oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon plus tarragon leaves for garnish

1.  Place a cast-iron skillet over high heat and heat until very hot, about 5 minutes.

2.  Cut the shad into light-meat sections (no skin) and dark-meat sections (skin attached).  The light meat is an inner flap of the boned shad fillet that separates easily. (You should have about 1 pound of light meat and an equal amount of dark meat with skin attached.  You will need only 1/4 pound of dark meat with skin attached for this recipe; reserve 3/4 pound of the dark meat with skin attached for another use.)

3.  Cut the 1 pound light meat shad fillets into 4 portions.  Season it and the 1/4 pound of dark meat with salt and pepper, then flour lightly with instant flour.

4.  When the pan is hot, add all the shad. Cook the light-meat fillets, turning frequently to make sure they don't stick, about 2 minutes per side.  Remove when just cooked (they should be browned on the outside; just past pink on the inside.) Continue to cook the dark-meat pieces with skin, pressing down with a spatula to make them as crunchy as possible.  Remove when crackling brown.

5.  Make the vinaigrette at the last minute. Beat together the apple, the vinegar, the hazelnut oil and the two teaspoons of the chopped tarragon.

6.  To serve, divide the light-meat fillets among 4 plates. Top with diced apples removed from the vinaigrette with a slotted spoon.  Mince the crunch dark meat finely, and top the apples with that.  Pour the remainder of the vinaigrette over and around the fish.  Garnish with fresh tarragon leaves.

Steamed Shad Roe Bundles With Ginger-Lemon Sauce
From The Dean & Deluca Cookbook 

        There are 3 important elements in this recipe.  First of all, the shad is cooked in a water treatment (steaming), which helps to melt its fat. Secondly, it's cooked quickly, which helps it to retain its lovely texture. Lastly, a light, citric, Asian-influenced sauce cuts through the richness of the shad roe, lightening it considerably.

Serves 8 as a first course or as a main course (see Note below)

1 pound shad roe
salt and pepper to taste
32 large, unbroken spinach leaves
1/2 cup julienne of parsnip
1 knob of ginger, about thumb-size
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1. Cut shad roe into 8 pieces.  Salt and pepper well.

2.  Remove heavy ribs from the spinach leaves. Dip the leaves in hot water for a few seconds, or until just soft. Overlap the edges of four leaves, making one wide sheet of spinach, and place one piece of shad roe in the center.  Sprinkle with a little lemon juice, and top with 1 tablespoon of parsnip.  Fold the spinach over the shad roe, making a neat bundle. Continue until 8 bundles are made.

3.  Place the bundles in a steamer over boiling water and steam for 6 minutes.

4. Make the sauce:  Grate the ginger until you have 2 teaspoons of shreds with juice.  Mix it in a small bowl with the 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, fish sauce and sugar.  Let stand 10 minutes.

5.  Place 1 steamed shad roe bundle on each of 8 small plates.  Pour the sauce through a fine strainer, and drizzle it evenly over and around the bundles.  

Note:  If you want a slightly prettier, but fussier, presentation, you could slice the bundles and fan them out on the plates. Also, if you wish to make a main course of this, serve 3 bundles a person, with rice on the side.

Shad Roe Curry Side Dish (Telow terubok sambal) (Malaysian Indian)
From Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe

        This curry sambal is prepared by frying shad roe in oil and mixing it with finely chopped onions and chilis, a little white vinegar, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce.

Note:  I published this recipe previously in my post about Unmentionable Cuisine and have not been able to get it off my mind.  It really looks terrific.

Thomas Eakins, Shad Fishermen (Setting The Net), Gloucester, New Jersey, 1881 

Shad planking in Virginia

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