A Bone to Pick - A Spring Odyssey with Shad

Forgive me.

If anyone has a sensitive stomach, or stringent principles, this post may not be to taste. Season as desired or pass it on to a less finicky foodie neighbor, 'as you like it'.

Spring is a season of beginnings.

The land awakes, stretches a bit, and cries out loud. Flowers cover the grassy hills in velvet carpets of technicolor.The sky wears its bluest blue, and brand new leaves shoot forth from dormant hiding places. Living things rejoice and congregate, freed from the barriers of winter, and then multiply.

I must now broach a bony subject. After reading a great post by my friend Nancie McDermott on shad roe, I eagerly jumped back into a shad-habit of spring consumption. Also worth noting is her subsequent post on The Lee Brothers Dinner. Their Cookbook contains a great treatment of Shad as well and a few key tidbits on what to do with them.

American Shad, or Alosa sapidissima,  is a fish of the east coast which historically has spawned in every accessible river and tributary from Canada to Florida. (see Maryland Dept of Natural Resources link enclosed) Native Americans, or American Indians, were therefore first known to be shad fishermen as a group in the United States. It is now one of the most popular indigenous fish, in its season.They are the largest in the herring family and the most abundant anadramous fish on the east coast. The females may travel  up to 1200 miles during the freshwater spawning process. The juvenile's larval development actually would not occur in saltwater. Interestingly enough, mature shad actually return to the rivers of their birth for this process, and could therefore be called "river-specific".
(see UmassAmherst)

They are also incredibly delicious! It may be true that tuna is referred to as seafood 'chicken'. But the flesh of  shad is very meaty, light, and flavorful. Frankly, it is even good right out of the fridge cold...remind one of anything? With all this loveliness to offer, there cannot possibly be any downside, can there? Well... there may be a slight challenge. The average American shad contains anywhere from 750-1000 bones! That is a very thoughtful dinner, indeed!

...And think I did. I first tried a recipe I'd used previously which dissolved the bones... I thought I remembered, I reckon, maybe. Slow baking with all my might, those multitudinous 'thorns in the flesh' stayed put and I racked my bean trying to recall what I did differently the last time. Apparently, after much research and sourcing of available advice on the issue, the only way to truly be rid of the 'interruptions' is to find one's very own bonafide shad fillet person and care for them dutifully.

 Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time eating it, as well as the roes. But as for the prickly situation I encountered, I contacted Nancie to get her thoughts on the subject. We agreed that it was well worth the effort regardless, and she suggested baking it covered with rock salt, which was also delicious.

Giving it another go, I got permission from the gents at my local seafood market to watch them fillet a few. The experience was eye-opening. Really, because had I blinked, I would have missed it. They stripped it down to fillets in an instant, but this only separated the shad from its primary back bone. There were still several rows of secondary bones to contend with, which I did.

My preferred experience is now to buy it whole, scale it, and separate the roes from their mommy themselves. (Sorry kids!) This keeps my roes intact for further research purposes!

The separation can be done a couple of ways, either starting at mid-line behind the head, or at the very front of their um, (pardon me!), anal fin, by making a small slit as close as possible to the flesh in the cavity. Mid-line of a shad, there is a very important vessel that bleeds profusely when fresh, and can thus make a delicate operation quite murky. 

So. I prefer the fin method, staying as close to the flesh as the long, sharp, flexible blade of a fillet knife will allow. At first the cut should be tentative, and one should periodically check the cavity while slicing through until proficiency is obtained with practice. This method ensures not going through the very delicate membrane holding the egg sac together. Once punctured, the eggs will easily disburse and subsequent cooking could be quite difficult, but not impossible.

Continuing all the way up through the belly, one can easily distinguish the other things that make a shad, well, a shad. 

At this point, all that remains is to go in at the base of the head and separate the rest of it with extreme caution, so as not to burst the roes at the tip. The greenish line pictured here is bilious, so that and the other stuff can be pulled out and tenderly cut away from the lobes of roe and discarded. That chore completed, it is now quite alright to slice through the spine at the center of the open cavity and puncture that artery so the fish bleeds out. Rinse well or salt soak a couple of hours and cook, as you like...

The roes are usually salt soaked several hours and/or then poached before using. This tip was attained from  my school chefs at Wake Tech. That is a delectable story of its own.

On my journey I discovered that a favorite way to cook the fish itself is indeed a nice slow bake with thick onion slices. I like to add thick slices of red, orange, and yellow peppers. One can do this head on or head off, I prefer leaving the tail on, just to scrape out any extra bits. If not slow baking, the peppers may be chopped instead of sliced.

Slow Baked Shad with Onions and Peppers

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F

1 large gutted whole shad, about 4-5 lbs
2 large onions, about 1 lb or 16 oz total sliced, 1 inch thick
3 large colorful peppers, about 10-12 oz total, sliced 1 inch thick
3-4 sprigs of tarragon
3-4 sprigs of chervil 
3-4 sprigs of chives

Optional - 1TB chipotle powder.
 (A little chipotle powder is great for a nice, smoky, and subtle heat.)

Lay the onion slices down first in a pan large enough to hold the fish, and add a 1-2 inch layer of water, broth, or stock.

Place the fish on top of the onions, add the herbs inside and scatter a few on top with the chipotle. 
Add the colorful peppers, and seal the whole pan with foil or an airtight lid.
Slow bake for 4-5 hours, checking after 4 hours to ensure moisture retention. 

Many recipes cover the shad in bacon and broil. If one uses a little bacon fat, there's no need to get it all soggy! Fry the bacon and eat it. Use the fat to broil it! Just a thought. We are talking a slow-bake here, folks! Better yet, use the bacon on the roes and eat that while waiting!

 The best springtime tradition is to eat baked shad with fresh new asparagus, lightly sauteed with a bit of butter.
"Double Shad Delight" with the brine from about.com recipe,
then slow- baked with broth or water to braise, and bay leaf.

In the meantime, the shad saga continues.... 

Happy Eating!
from Deelish!


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