Shedding a shad aversion, thanks to Tio's pepper sauce

HAPPY EATER

April 07, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It was spring and I wanted to enjoy some shad. I tried three times. I baked it at home, first in a bath of olive oil and lemon juice, then with bread crumbs. I didn't like it. In both cases the fish flavor was too strong for me.

This was disappointing.

Eating a plate of springtime shad was one of the Baltimore traditions I had wanted to appreciate. Over the years the popularity of the custom has diminished as spawning shad have all but disappeared from Maryland waters. Now, dinner-table shad have to be "imported" from other East Coast states whose river systems support a healthy shad run.

There also seems to be a diminishing supply of shad eaters.

Nonetheless, I wanted to eat some shad in April because seasonal eating -- feasting on foods when nature serves them up -- is one of life's great pleasures. So I kept trying. Fortunately, shad eating is like hitting a baseball, that other rite of spring: you get three chances before you strike out.

On my third effort I connected, big time. I had shad cloaked in the riojana sauce of Emiliano Sanz, chef of Tio Pepe restaurant. It was bliss.

This sauce was made with red and green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and a touch of wine.

When I cooked shad at home it was big, rough and rowdy. But when it was cooked with the peppers, it became sweet, smooth, refined.

I was so fond of this fish that not only did I polish off the large servings of shad meat, I also demolished the ample portion of shad roe.

Roe, of course, is fancy talk for fish eggs. On the whole, I am not a fish-egg eater. I know there are people who go into ecstasy when they dine on eggs from perch, herring, or even catfish.

I know because I am married to such a person. In the spirit of domestic harmony and culinary curiosity, I have tasted all kinds of fish eggs. I have not liked them. So now at our house, when the roe hits the pan, I leave the kitchen.

Moreover, years ago I tried what I was told was the best shad roe in town, the big portion served at Danny's, a now-defunct restaurant on North Charles street. The dish was probably perfectly cooked, but it was just too eggy, too fishy for me.

I realize that traditional shad eaters probably regard eating shad tamed by a pepper sauce as wimping out.

Ardent followers of the fish, the kind of people who regularly phone Tio Pepe in the spring to see when shad is on the menu, generally prefer their shad cooked with a garlic sauce, said Miguel Lujan, a Tio Pepe staff member

Perhaps someday I will step up to such stronger styles of shad appreciation, but for now I am smitten with the mild manners of shad and sweet peppers.

And right now shad needs all the fans it can get.

"People who like to eat shad, to cook it, and even those who know how to bone it are dying off," said Bill Devine, who presides over Faidley's Seafood, his family-run business in the city's downtown Lexington Market.

Getting the bones out of a shad requires a complicated series of knife-cuts, Devine said. Shad was once deboned at each of the city's retail seafood stands. Now, Devine said, most of the shad is deboned at the Wholesale Fish Market in Jessup. He also cautioned that "boned-shad," not "fillet," is the terminology to use if you want shad that has virtually no bones in it.

Besides being bony, shad suffers because a diminishing number of people know how to cook fish, he said. "There is a whole generation that thinks a fish is square," said Devine, referring to the shape of fish sandwiches served in many fast-food restaurants.

His daughter Eve, who also works at the seafood stand, was more circumspect in her assessment of shad appeal. While most of her regular shad customers are older, she said, there are some younger people who buy it for special occasions. "They may be following a recipe out of Gourmet magazine . . . something like that," she said.

Like a lot of folks, I had read news stories lamenting the loss of a shad run in Maryland's rivers.

I felt concerned about the situation, but not really connected. Up to that point, I had never caught a shad, or had a shad dish I really liked.

But eating that shad covered in pepper sauce changed things for me. Now shad is not just a distant environmental issue for me.

Now it is culinary treasure, a symbol of the sweetness of spring.

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