Monday, February 27, 2012

Shad roe - a harbinger of spring in the East

While living in California, I came across several shad fishermen, and even saw the fish for sale occasionally at Taylor's Market in Sacramento. But it wasn't until I came to Virginia that I discovered the pleasures of its roe. Shad roe is only available locally for a few weeks in the early spring. So the season begins very early in Florida, moves up to Georgia, then up the coast to Virginia and Maryland, where it is known as Maryland caviar. 

John McPhee, one of my favorite authors for his journalistic style, wrote "The Founding Fish," an entire book that waxes eloquently about shad, and has provided New Yorker magazine readers with many recipes over the years for both the fish and the roe. By the way, the fish is also at its best during spawning season, when it gets fatter and more succulent. 

On the West Coast, shad don't start up the Sacramento River until late spring. They continue on up river, and group for several weeks near Corning in June and early July.

In the fish market, shad roe definitely stands out among the pale fillets - it's bright red and looks vaguely obscene. It comprises two long egg sacs called lobes, joined together by a thin membrane. Each is a meal for one. Since it is better to eat fresh, it's best to share with someone you love... who also loves shad roe, or is willing to try it.

When cooked, it turns the color of liver, with a grainy interior. But it doesn't taste like liver or caviar. It is much milder and takes on the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with.

Here's a recipe, adapted from DC's Blue Duck Tavern chef Brian McBride, that I cooked last week. I served it with a salad of local lettuces and arugula, dressed with a little olive oil, spices, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon.

Pan-Fried Shad Roe
Serves 2

4 slices of meaty sliced hog jowl bacon (or any lean, hickory-smoked bacon), 2 slices diced, 2 whole
1 large shallot, or 2 smaller shallots, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 medium-sized set of shad roe (two lobes)
Kosher salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup vegetable demi-glace, made with 1 teaspoon of Better Than Bullion vegetable stock and 1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar glaze

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a cast-iron pan over medium heat, sauté diced bacon until the fat renders. Add shallot and garlic. When the onions are caramelized, remove the mixture from the pan and set aside. Wipe the pan and return it to medium heat.

Raw shad roe
Cut along the center membrane to separate the roe lobes. Pat the sacs dry and season them with coarse salt and black pepper. Melt butter in the pan, add the 2 whole pieces of bacon, and gently place the lobes in the pan. Let the roe brown on one side for 3 minutes, basting occasionally with the butter, then flip it, taking care not to tear its membrane. Place the pan in the oven for about 5 minutes. The roe is done when it is lightly caramelized and feels firm, like a medium-rare steak. Set the roe aside.

Drain the fat from the pan and return it to medium heat. Deglaze the pan with the vegetable demi-glace. Return the onion mixture to the pan, with the mustard and balsamic glaze. When it starts to boil, take it off the heat.

Slice the roe on the bias and serve one lobe per person over a mound of the onions with a curled bacon strip and a drizzle of sauce. Serve with a lemony salad and sliced baguette to absorb the sauce. You won't want to waste any of it.

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