Enjoying taste of sweet shad - after getting past its odor

April 24, 2002|By ROB KASPER

THE WAY the wind currents work in our house, you can sniff out what's cooking as soon as you walk in the door.

Zephyrs from the kitchen stove speed toward the front of the house, and some nights the fragrance of freshly baked bread or a roasted chicken welcomes me home. But one recent night the scent that greeted me was not pleasant. It was the rough, acrid odor of fish.

I hurried toward the kitchen to turn on the exhaust fan and tried to figure out which species was causing the smell. It was shad.

Shad is an oily fish. That is both a good thing and a bad thing.

On the plus side, eating plenty of oily fish, like shad, might keep you from keeling over. Or as comedian Redd Foxx, who used to grab his chest and feign symptoms of a heart attack, might say, it could help you dodge "the big one."

That is my rough summary of a couple of recent health studies reported in issues of the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. These august groups did not use Redd's blunt language. Instead they talked about the major health benefits for both men and women of eating fish at least once a week.

Looking at the experience of a large group of doctors and nurses, the studies found that people who had higher concentrations of n-3 fatty acids, or fish oils, in their bloodstream had better cardiac health. In particular, these oils seemed to protect people from the chance of suffering a sudden cardiac death.

Shad is the Exxon of fish; it is loaded with oils. That becomes apparent when you cook it and the oils become volatile. In other words, it stinks up the house.

Stink is a subjective term. There might be some noses that regard the aromas from broiling shad as sweet perfume, but mine is not one of them. The other night the smell was so off-putting that I had to repeatedly remind myself, as I settled down to the supper table, that I liked the flavor of this fish.

Another drawback of shad is its numerous bones. There are about 769, according to research conducted by C. Lavett Smith of the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Fortunately, our pieces of shad had been filleted, stripped of their skeletal structure by knife-wielding shad boners. My wife had spotted these shad fillets at the fish counter of a local supermarket and was surprised to see that they cost about $7 a pound - half the price of comparable fillets of tuna and salmon. Because removing the bones requires so much skilled hand labor, she had assumed shad would be more expensive than the easier-to-handle fish.

But shad is not as popular as the well-known, ever-present tuna and salmon. Shad is an East Coast fish, appearing in the markets as the fish make their annual spring run from the Atlantic Ocean to their inland river spawning grounds. Shad's limited availability, its bones, and its cooking odor make it hard to sell, local fish merchants tell me.

Yet when I tasted the shad fillets - sauteed for a few minutes on each side - I was reminded of why I love this fish. Its flavor was sweet. Its texture was light. On the plate, it was a subtle, delicate performer, exactly the opposite of its rough cooking character.

My wife and I had nearly finished off the fish when our teen-age son thundered in through the front door.

I offered him a bite of my shad. I wanted to tell him that this was not mere fish, but a piece of local lore, a springtime tradition, a surprisingly delightful way to dodge "the big one."

Before I could get a word out of my mouth, the kid had rejected my shad.

"What's that smell?" he asked. "It's awful."

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