Have you had shad for dinner in the past week? If not, you should do so tonight or tomorrow night. It is one of the most delicious fish in the universe, and incredibly easy to cook, and due to the same mild winter than has local flowers and, apparently, Republican primary voters, so confused, the American shad spawning season, which usually heralds spring in March or April, has arrived early this year.
So go to a good fish store and buy some. (Fish Tales on Court Street in Brooklyn has deboned filets for $13.99 a pound—the deboning is helpful because, along with being so delicious, shad are extremely bony fish.) Then take it home, turn on your broiler, put the shad skin-side down on a tray, salt and pepper if you want, and put the tray on the top rack of your oven. Then cook it for six or seven minutes—until the top starts to brown and crisp up a little. Then take it out and put lemon and capers on it. (That what it says to do in Mark Bittman’s Fish book.) I suck at cooking, but even I have a hard time messing this up. And seriously, the taste is amazing. Like a more buttery, less oily bluefish or mackerel. And it doesn’t stink up your kitchen for four days.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can buy the sacks of shad roe, too. Many people consider them a delicacy. But they are disgusting looking (they look like a bright red human liver) and, though Bittman says that cooking them is even easier than cooking the fish itself (“There’s nothing easier than this,” he says), I have, in past efforts, found this not to be the case. You saute them in butter (for three or four minutes) until “lightly browned.” And if you cook them just right, they are indeed excellent, rich and creamy like foie gras. But if you undercook them, they’re slimy, and if you overcook them even just a bit, they go from light brown to dull gray very quickly, and the individual eggs harden and separate, and it’s like eating foie-gras flavored sand, which is far less pleasant. And it’s hard to cook them evenly, because of their corpuscular shape.
I like the fish itself better anyway. I’ve made it twice in the past week, and it came out great each time. Just with a salad on the side. And again, I suck at cooking, so imagine how well you could do!
Oh, and it’s a good time to go back and read John McPhee’s classic story of fishing for shad on the Delaware River that was in The New Yorker twelve years ago. (Subscription required, since it’s the stupid, excellent, worth-it New Yorker.) They are apparently very fun to catch with light tackle. The father and son in the video above sure seem to be having a good day. Though, as McPhee explained, it’s a mystery why anyone is able to catch them when they’re spawning.
Like salmon, shad return to their natal rivers and eat nothing on the spawning run. Like salmon swimming two thousand miles up the Yukon River, migrating shad exist on their own fat. So why do shad and salmon respond to lures? Up and down the river, almost everybody has an answer to that fundamental question, but no one—bartender or biologist—really knows. A plurality will tell you that the fish are expressing frustration. Flutter something colorful in their faces and shad will either ignore it completely or snap at it like pit bulls.
“King Shad,” McPhee calls them, and Ralph Steadman drew a fantastic illustration to go with the piece: a regal, crowned fish with and one long leg sticking out of its robe like Angelina Jolie at the Oscars Sunday night.