March can make you glad for the sweet taste of shad

March 22, 2000|By Rob Kasper

THE WEATHER fools you this time of year. One day it is balmy, full of the promise of spring. The next day the wind is bitter, reminding you that winter can still get in a couple of licks before fading from the scene.

During one of those dual-personality days of March -- days that start out looking like spring, but end up behaving like winter -- I cooked shad, a fish I associate with springtime.

I have heard stories and read accounts from years ago of the great excitement that once marked spring here as the schools of spawning shad filled the rivers and creeks flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

Virtually every spring I ring up Tom Horton, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, has written several books on the Chesapeake Bay and produces a weekly column for The Sun on the watershed. He tells me what great fun it once was to catch a shad in the Nanticoke River. He tells me how the fish were spirited, wonderful fighters, who danced on the water, and who, thanks to their soft mouths, often slipped off the hook.

The tales of the days of shad and roses make me envious because now, as a conservation measure, you can't fish for shad in Maryland waters, by hook or net. Friends of the fish say that the shad population is making a comeback, but it still has a long way to go.

Instead of cooking up a fresh shad plucked from local rivers and creeks, which live up to their Latin billing, Alosa sapidissima, or "most flavorful" fish, a modern-day shad eater settles for fish that have been caught in the distant ocean and filleted.

Shad is full of bones. Historically, folks have employed one of two tactics -- removing them or dissolving them -- for dealing with shad bones. To remove them, you have to engage the services of a shad boner, one of a handful of skilled knife wielders who can fillet the fish without ruining it. Another way is to leave the bones in the whole fish, stuffing it with vegetables, covering it in a tomato sauce, and cooking it for hours until the bones soften and dissolve.

Thanks to letters from readers of this column, I am armed with a repertoire of recipes on cooking a whole shad, in sauce, for hours. One is printed below. I have not tried these recipes because, thanks to the short supply, I have rarely found myself in possession of a whole, fresh shad.

But I make do. The other day I bought a fillet of shad at a seafood market. I tossed a few capers on it, placed it, skin side down, under a broiler until it was cooked through, 6-8 minutes, without turning it.

I had broiled shad fillet for supper, a sweet pleasing flavor, with fresh asparagus and a glass of Muscadet. Outside, a March wind howled, but at the supper table, it felt like spring.

Serves 6

2 quarts stewed tomatoes

1 onion, sliced

2 potatoes, cut up

1-2 stalks celery, sliced

1-2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 shad, 4-5 pounds, gutted

Combine all ingredients, except fish, in a bowl. Stuff cavity of scaled, gutted shad with some of the mixture and tie closed. Bake at 350 degrees for 5-6 hours in covered roasting pan, occasionally spooning remaining mixture over fish.

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