George Washington Ate Here – Shad Roe with Brown Butter, Capers and Ginger

You will never see it on a restaurant menu.  The TV Food Network is unlikely to devote an hour to its history and preparation.  It is one of the great forgotten foods of American culinary culture.  I’m talking about the shad.  The sole remnant of its once mighty role in the diet of Americans is its roe, and for a certain segment of avid pescavores it’s the line in the sand between winter and spring.  This week we’re going where food blogs don’t usually tread – Shad Roe with Brown Butter, Capers and Ginger.   Believe me, it’s worth it.

There is a story–a fish story?–proffered by historian Henry Emerson Wildes in his book Valley Forge about the importance of shad to the revolutionary war effort.  In the spring of 1778 the tattered and hungry Continental Army was encamped in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where it had been since the onset of winter.  Disease and malnutrition had rendered almost a third of the 12,000 men unfit for duty.  With no solution at hand Washington feared that his enfeebled forces might soon disband as desperate soldiers drifted away in search of food.

Salvation purportedly arrived on a spring current.  Emaciated men accustomed to scavenging for mussels in the shallows of the nearby Schuylkill River were were met one morning with the sight of the water seething with an unbroken bank-to-bank mass of fish, the springtime shad run.

Cavalry galloped upstream into the river where, following the instructions of local inhabitants, they beat the water with branches, driving the fish run back into the waiting arms of ravenous soldiers.  Washington himself would have recognized the phenomenon.  On his Mount Vernon estate he harvested shad from the annual James River runs which he then salted and exported on his own ship to to Antigua.  The run lasted several days, feeding the army and allowing them to put up hundreds of barrels of salted shad for future use.

Unfortunately, as the writer John McPhee details in The Founding Fish,* despite the story’s frequent repetition, it’s impossible to verify or track down contemporaneous sources.  Over the years various versions of the story have appeared, including one attributed to the patriot Nathan Hale, who was hung by the British 1n 1776, and so could hardly have been a reliable chronicler of events that occurred after his death. What can be verified is that the British erected a net across the Schuylkill downstream in anticipation of the shad run and increasing the pressure on Washington.  Whether the net was effective, or whether shad saved the day–no one either thinks it worthwhile to have recorded in the many surviving diaries and letters that date from the period.

Shad–and its roe–is one of those peculiarities of American cuisine, with a  following whose passion belies its numbers, and although it has been widely consumed on the Atlantic shore for centuries, first by native Americans and then by European colonists, outside its school of devotees the roe is little known.  Fresh shad, considered too boney for modern tastes, might as well not exist at all.

Early Americans were not so fastidious.  Like lobster, that other luxury food once seen fit only to feed the Irish, shad has enjoyed an uncertain  reputation, seen variously as a food for pigs, as fertilizer, as sustenance for the poor, and finally, especially after 1740, as a treat for gourmands.  Few consumers plucking a bundle of cedar mini-planks from their spot between the panko crumbs and artisan dry rubs in the fish departments of Whole Foods know that the current fashion for grilling “planked” fish was already around in 18th-century Philadelphia.  Planked shad is still offered up as a delicacy at various small town festivals in May and June from the rural Southeast up through New England.

By now you’re either really curious or you’ve moved on to that site that talks about cupcakes.  Let’s say a few words about shad roe.  Unlike fresh shad, roe is widely–albeit briefly–available in the spring.  Generally the roe is sold in in “sets.”  Each set, the product of a single fish, contains a pair of roe sacs (see pictures).  A single set typically weighs between 12 and 18 ounces.

Few foods evoke the kind of ecstatic preambles that accompany shad roe recipes.  As its fans will tell you, shad roe is like nothing else, marine delicacy married to a tender toothiness from the cooked eggs.  To my mind the flavor of soaked roe (see below) recalls swordfish, if swordfish had nutty overtones and a completely different texture.

Cooking roe in a pan involves a certain finesse.  It must be done, as the Wicked Witch of the West says, delicately, taking care not to rupture the roe sac.  By keeping the sacs whole and keeping the heat low you preserve the texture of the eggs.  Ideally the eggs should cook evenly–and not too much.  The goal is to produce cooked roe with a bit of resistance to the bite, but not firm crunchiness.  Because two sacs come in a set, a single set has become the standard for two people.  We cook a set–you get one half and I get the other.

As you can see from the venous structure in the photos, when you first meet your roe sac it’s going to have a fair amount of blood in it, and this affects the flavor.  IMO it’s absolutely essential to soak the roe in a mildly saline water overnight.  If unsoaked, roe has a strong “dark meat fish” flavor.  Despite my love of bluefish, mackerel, and other fishy seafood I find unpurged roe unappealing.   Jody disagrees**–and I have to say that many lovers of shad roe come down on her side.   If this is your first venture into the world of shad roe, take my advice–soak first, ask questions later.

Regardless of how roe is prepared, it’s rich, particularly with the classic brown butter and capers.  Rich flavor + butter.   Speaking from direct, recent experience, half a set is A LOT of roe.  Jody and I agreed we could have split a single roe sac and, somewhat grudgingly, have been okay.  Our experiments for this post left us with more roe than we could comfortably eat at one sitting.  I was beginning to have visions of myself as a Franklin- like figure easing into one of the thermal springs of 18th-century Bath, England, along with my fellow afflictees with gout.

Nevertheless, leftover shad roe in the fridge is a gift from the gods.  Jody’s been spreading shad roe on toast for a luxurious breakfast.  On Saturday we (okay, Jody) made fresh tagliatelle for dinner guests, serving it with a sauce made from extra virgin olive oil, roe and parsley.  Leftover roe stirred into slowly scrambling eggs elevates the dish into refined complexity, the sort of thing that can drive a man to popping the cork on a bottle of Chablis at breakfast.  Restraint in all things.  I’ve portioned our remaining hoard into small snack bags and buried them in the freezer.

Last spring I found myself cycling early on a foggy Sunday morning through Valley Forge National Historical Park.  An arrowed marker identified a field stone farmhouse on a nearby creek as Washington’s headquarters.  I got off my bike and poked around.  It would be hours before any of the buildings opened.  A quick scan of the nearby plaques added to my small store of Washington knowledge, another informed me about 18th-century pollution in the Schuylkill from early manufacturing.

Nothing about shad.  Ah, well.

Sometime late next December, when the howling wind is predicting bad things to come, I’m going to defrost a packet of shad roe and add it to seafood risotto, and when people ask about that tantalizing mystery flavor, I’ll them the story, probably apocryphal, about Valley Forge and the savior shad and the distant arrival of spring.

Ken

*For this story as well as the history of shad in the American diet I am deeply indebted to John McPhee’s great treatise, The Founding Fish (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002).

**She’s fine with it either way.

Shad Roe with Brown Butter,

Capers and Ginger

Makes 4 staggeringly generous servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 sets shad roe, about 12 ounces each
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 ounce slice bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4 inch dice
  • 6-8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons rinsed capers
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • ½ pound small red bliss potatoes
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs–chives, parsley, chervil

Directions:

  1. Make a solution of 1½ quarts water and 1½ tablespoons salt and stir until dissolved. Add the roe and soak overnight in the refrigerator.
  2. The next day, drain and pat dry.
  3. Combine the bacon, butter and shallots in a large saute pan over the lowest heat and cook 3 minutes or until the bacon starts to render. Add garlic and ginger and cook 30 seconds, then add the roe and baste with the butter.  Cover all but 1 inch of the pan with a lid and continue to cook over low heat, basting with the fat every 3 minutes or so for 10 minutes. Carefully turn the roe, and cook 5 minutes on low, continuing to baste the roe.  Increase the heat to medium high to sear the outside, about 2 minutes.   The lobes should be just cooked so they’re still springy  to the touch with tender opaque eggs.  Transfer to a cutting board, separate the lobes with your hands or a knife and trim off any excess membrane.  Arrange on 4 warm plates.
  4. Add the lemon, capers and parsley to the pan off the heat, taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary and then spoon the pan sauce over the roe.
  5. While the roe is cooking wash and scrub the potatoes.  Put the potatoes in a pot and cover with water by 1 inch.  Add salt, bring to a boil and then decrease the heat to low.  Simmer until just done, 5-8 minutes.  Drain, cut in half and then return to the pan and toss with the chopped herbs.
  6. Serve the roe with the potatoes.
  7. This is quite rich.  All you need in addition is a simple green salad.

Two sets, top view.  The set on the right was soaked overnight.  Notice the pale pink color and absence of veining.

The same two sets, underside.  The difference is even more striking on the underside.

Jody Notes:

Okay, I know,  bacon two weeks in a row.  For all of you vegetarians out there who are following us, I have two things to say:  1.  In this recipe and the Flageolet recipe from last week, you can leave the bacon out of the recipe and it will be delicious.  2.  At the same time, be honest.  I’ve met more vegetarians than I can count who say, “I haven’t eaten meat in years… except for bacon.  But bacon isn’t meat, it’s its own food group.  Right?”

In our cookbook, “In the Hands of a Chef” I have 2 recipes for shad roe, and in both cases, I poach the roe very slowly in a court bouillon first to help prevent it from overcooking when seared.  In this recipe I wanted to try a different technique and started by soaking the sets in salt water overnight instead.  I believe it accomplished two things.  It leached out some of the blood, which gave the roe a sweeter flavor, and it made the eggs themselves more tender as they soaked up some of the salted water.  

Instead of searing the roe over medium-high heat for a short amount of time as many recipes suggest, I cooked them first over a low heat until almost done, and then increased the heat to sear just one side.  The eggs were evenly cooked through and all of them remained tender.  When cooking on a higher heat, on the other hand, it’s easy to overcook the eggs closest to the surface of the roe sac while leaving the ones deeper inside under done.

The ginger is my addition to a classic flavor profile of capers and bacon for shad roe.  It marries well with the nuttiness of the brown butter and adds a welcome kick to the richness of the dish.


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45 thoughts

  1. Sounds wonderful. I have always wanted to try Shad Roe but have been intimidated. Question: When freezing the extra roe, when is that done? Before or after salting, before or after cooking? Love your posts. Can’t wait for the next.

    • After cooking. At least that’s the way we do it–it may be possible to freeze raw roe, but I’ve never tried it and on those occasions when I eat frozen seafood (octopus, squid, wild salmon) I prefer it be frozen at the source, or right after someone I know pulled it out of the water. Buy a set–soak, and then cook the whole set, share one roe sac with someone you love, split the other in quarters and freeze them. Good luck! Ken

  2. Pingback: Flageolet recipe | Myneighborhocl

    • I have since discovered that fresh shad is also available, but you have to order for it. Evidently once it’s boned (which your fish guy/gal can do) it kind of falls apart, and as one fishmonger told me, “After a day on ice it’s only suitable for chowder.” Ken

  3. If shad roe is half as good as your writing (this post has particular “flava” as the rapper Pit Bull might exclaim), then I’m a convert!

    By the way, I finally got around to enjoying eggs, preserved lemons, etc. over steel cut oats. I’m sure rappers have a word for how obscenely satisfying it was, but this is a family-friendly blog.

  4. Ingredients: “2 sets shad roe, about 6 ounces each.” A whole set is 6 ounces, or half a set? This recipe looks yum. The Harvest used to serve shad roe in season. Only the most discerning customers ordered it.

  5. Good eye, Lewis! Each roe sack is is between 6 and 9 ounces, although they can sometimes be smaller. Wish I could go back in time and see what exactly they were doing with it at the Harvest. I don’t have strong memories about it either way. I do remember their sweetbreads with fondness, though (hey, wait, maybe a post…). Ken

    • Aren’t you in Florida? According to John McPhee anglers do fish for shad that far south. I’d check with good seafood vendor–I’d bet if they don’t have it on display that they could get it within a day on order. Good luck, and thanks for the compliments. Ken

  6. I have been enjoying shad roe every spring since I was a young girl in the 1950s. I am on tenterhooks waiting for shad roe to be available at the local fish market. It was a delight to read your post with its beautiful photographs. Thank you!

    • That’s great. I hope fans like you keep it going. Recently there’s been a trend in upscale restaurants to bring it back. It’s really a wonderful, truly seasonal treat. Thanks for stopping by. Ken

  7. Beautiful and I love the flavours you have out with, I would very happy dining on this. We eat a lot of smoked roe in NZ

    • Smoked? I’d like to taste that! Are you talking about shad (or a close approximation) or something different? Although I’ve seen mullet and codfish roe on sale in France, until a few days ago, when I saw fresh flounder with roe sacs, I’d never seen any fresh roe here except shad and the occasional scallop with the roe sac still attached. Thanks for the comment. Ken

  8. So I grew up in Southern New Jersey— farm country— where my 84 year old mother still cooks planked shad in front of our huge colonial kitchen fireplace every single spring. The roe is the best part! I sent her your suggestions for how to cook it, and think she’ll be thrilled to learn some fishmongers actually debone the fish for you. Thanks for including this rich history.

    • Wow! Homecooked planked shad! After the apocalypse I want you guys on my island! That’s really great. What’s interesting about shad and its roe is that despite its low profile in culinary culture how many people seem to have such fond memories of eating and cooking it. At this point I’m surprised sport shad fishermen haven’t chimed in. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Ken

  9. This is so wild–every time I answer somebody’s question it takes me down another strange avenue. American shad are not native to the Pacific, but their enormous popularity in the 19th century prompted enthusiasts to transport fingerlings from the East Coast, particularly the Susquehanna River system in Pennsylvania, to the West Coast, notably to the Columbia River and Sacramento River systems in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Fortunately shad seem not to have been disruptive to other native marine life. Not only do both West Coast river systems now have thriving shad fisheries, but shad have been sighted all the way from southern California to Alaska. Today the Columbia River is particularly known for its shad (fingerlings from the Columbia River have even been transplanted back to Pennsylvania where shad had been failing!!!). Whether shad is known to general consumers is another question–the fish and roe are definitely there. Ask your fishmonger if he knows about it. I’d be interested in what you find out. Good luck.

  10. I am the 84 year old mother mentioned above. We do get boned shad and it saves a lot of work in the eating, but we think the flavor of the shad with the bone left in is a better flavor. Since I serve people who have never had it, we often cook both and let them decide which they prefer. I freeze both the shad and the roe, with success. I have never soaked the roe, and always cook it in butter, on medium heat, turning it when brown on the first side, salting before I turn it. Total time ten or fifteen minutes.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write a comment. I prefer most fish on the bone for the same reason, but perhaps because there is so much boneless seafood available I find that many people not only haven’t experienced fish on the bone, they’re very resistant to even trying it! Our kids seem to show up regularly with friends for dinner guests who have never eaten 1) Risotto 2) Clams, mussels or oysters 3) Seafood (e.g. “My Dad doesn’t like seafood so we don’t eat it.”) 4) Eggplant 5) Any kind of liver – to name a few items that come immediately to mind. Whether I order a very bony fish depends on the circumstances, i.e., how much time I have for dinner, whom I’m eating with, etc. I love whole scup, for example, but don’t order it unless I’m with people who are comfortable watching a grown man consume part of his dinner with his fingers. As for soaking the roe, I happen to like it that way, but I also mentioned it in hopes that some readers already put off by the appearance of the raw roe might screw up their courage and try this delicious spring treat. The tradition lives on! Thanks again for writing. Ken

  11. We loved this, and served it with fingerlings and arugula, which captured all those wonderfully garlicky bits of bacon beautifully. Clara was at a birthday party and when we picked her up we told her we had had shad roe for dinner. Her response: “Lucky!” Gotta start buying two pairs . . .

  12. It’s amazing what a good soaking can accomplish. And bacon two weeks in a row? Nothing wrong with that! Great recipe, but I don’t believe we get this in our neck of the woods so will have to wait til our next trip to Boston.

    MM

    • We’d be happy to serve it to you in Boston, but after the seafood assortment that I saw in Central Market, I’d be surprised if they couldn’t get it, if you really want it–it would probably come from California though, not New England. We’ll teach Alex how to cook it. Ken

  13. Dear Ken and Jody,
    This entry brings back wonderful spring memories of my father coming home with a ice chest full of shad, a fish we all enjoyed. But mostly I remember my mother’s delight with the roe. As children we all avoided it, but we watched as she soaked and then cooked it and ate it with such pleasure. After all these years your entry makes me want
    to try it myself.

  14. I so enjoyed reading this blog post. Lots of interesting historical facts to ponder over. My husband and I love roe but I have not tried shad roe – I wonder where I could source some – maybe Billingsgate Fish Market! I also loved the sound of all the various ways you ate the left overs. Eating in your household always sounds like a wonderful culinary adventure. I must say your recipes are always spot on and definitely the types of dishes that I love to eat.

    • English colonists arrived in this country already familiar with shad so it wouldn’t surprise me if you found it in England. But if shad–sometimes called “twaite shad” in England–is a big deal in England, it hasn’t found its way onto the internet yet. I found a few fly-flishing references to people catching them on the Wye, Towy (sp?) and Seven (sp?) Rivers in May, but nothing like the the hundreds of references to catching, eating and celebrating them on this side of the Atlantic. If you do manage to find shad or its roe please stop back and tell us the story. As far as eating in our house, you take your pleasures where you find them. :-) Thanks. Ken

  15. Pingback: Fish Roe: Finding a Way Back to Our Plates, with Alexander Gilliam – Charlottesville | Virginia Food Heritage Project

  16. oh. my. gawd. So happy to see shad roe in the case at New Deal this week. So much happier to have for dinner. saw this post after the season last year. thx!

  17. Pingback: Shad Roe, NSFW?

  18. Pingback: Rites of Spring ~ Shad Roe with Brown Butter, Shallots and Capers | What's Cooking

  19. Reblogged this on A Single Serving and commented:
    Sometimes it’s a bit dangerous for me to venture into the grocery store–I happen on to something that I hadn’t planned to buy. That happens especially with some seasonal specialties that appear without warning because you never know quite when they are going to be available.

    So we’ve had groundhog day, and we’re looking toward the vernal equinox (20th of March, I believe)–all suggesting that spring is on the way. I have a particular sign of spring that I’m always looking for: shad roe. Today I made it’s unpredictable appearance at my local Harris Teeter fish market. I never know quite how I’m going to fix it once I get it home–but it usually comes down to something with brown butter and some other seasonings like lemon, or something very simple so that the focus is the shad rod itself.

    Whilst skulking about on the web, I found this delightful post about it’s history and preparation that I want to reblog to share–I couldn’t do better.

  20. Pingback: Signs of spring | A Single Serving

  21. Pingback: Shad roe redux | A Single Serving

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