Don't ever settle for half-baked ideas when cooking shad

HAPPY EATER

April 03, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I had a piece of heaven this week and wasn't sure how to handle it. I had a hunk of fresh shad and some shad roe.

The shad had been deboned. That is a big deal when you are talking about shad, because the fish has an extraordinary amount of bones. The bony nature of shad is one reason it is not as popular with eaters as, say, bone-free fillets of orange roughy.

Another reason is that shad is seasonal. Shad is sold in Maryland fish markets from about December to May. These shad have to be "imported" from other East Coast states whose river systems support a healthy shad run. When shad arrive in Maryland waters, usually about this time of year, they are protected. In the hope of reviving the once-plentiful supply of shad, Maryland law prohibits fishermen from catching shad for commercial purposes. A Maryland commercial fisherman can keep two shad for his own personal use, but he can't sell them.

The shad I ate was a "loophole legal" local shad. The fish had died while tangled in a commercial fishermen's net in the Chesapeake Bay, and the fisherman had sent me the fresh fish, which a friend deboned. Maybe I should have felt guilty, but mostly I felt grateful -- and nervous.

This was a gift from nature, and I didn't want to blow it. I immediately began worrying about the best way to cook it.

I recalled eating shad in two Baltimore-area restaurants, Rudys' 2900 in suburban Finksburg, and Tio Pepe in downtown Baltimore. At Rudys', hickory-smoked shad roe, or fish eggs, were served with leeks, morel mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes and fiddle-head ferns. At Tio's, the shad was covered with a sauce made with red and green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and a touch of wine. Both dishes were delicious but required considerably more skill and ingredients than my household kitchen could muster.

So I considered simpler treatments. I learned that a traditional, Eastern Shore style of cooking shad was to cut it in chunks, batter it and fry it in a cast-iron skillet filled with oil. That is what J. C. Tolley of Toddville, Md., told me. Tolley assured me that the flavor of skillet-fried shad was terrific. But he admitted that eaters who cooked the shad this way had to be willing to pick a lot of bones out of the fish.

Sous-chef Tom Winter of the Crab Shanty restaurant in Ellicott City warned me if I overcooked the shad roe, the egg sacks

could explode. On the other hand, he said, if I under-cooked them, the roe would get gummy. Winter suggested cooking the fish the way he does at the restaurant, sprinkling it with butter and paprika and cooking it for three to five minutes in a 500-degree oven. It sounded appealing, but I was not sure my oven could get that hot.

Then I came across a recipe for "charcoal-broiled shad" in the old "Maryland's Way" cookbook. Like many recipes in old cookbooks, this one was somewhat hard to follow. It told me to cover the fish with slabs of bacon and cook it over a charcoal fire for 14 minutes, flipping the fish about every 10 seconds. I did not follow this intensive-flipping routine. Instead, I rubbed the fish with bacon, and cooked the fish over a charcoal fire until its pink flesh turned white.

The fish fell apart on the grill. While my charcoal-grilled shad arrived at the table looking somewhat like scrambled eggs, it had a wonderful, slightly smoky flavor. The roe, which my wife had sauteed in butter, was bliss. To accompany the shad we had a tart white wine, a 1992 Christian Salmon Sancerre.

It was a wonderful meal, especially for an ordinary Tuesday night.

I was pleased with myself until the next day, when I heard how some friends had cooked a portion of the shad I had given them. They had placed the roe and the fish on a metal cooking sheet. They basted the fish with a solution of lemon juice, white wine and butter, and sandwiched the roe between slabs of bacon. Next, they pushed the fish-laden sheet under the oven broiler and watched the bacon. When the bacon was almost done, the %% fish was almost done. At that point they pulled the bacon off the roe, basted the roe with the lemon-butter mixture and broiled everything for another minute.

My friends made their bacon-basted shad sound even better than my charcoal-scrambled version. Which proved, I guess, that whether you are telling stories about cooking exceptional fish, or catching them, somebody's always out to top you.

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