The other omega-3-laden fish

A worker readies planked shad for the fire at a Rotary Club Shad Bake in Essex, Connecticut. Photo courtesy Judy Benson/Conn. Sea Grant

June 2021

By Jean Kerr

Massachusetts may have its sacred cod, but Connecticut has its shad. Although only adopted as the official Connecticut “State Fish” (who knew?) in 2003, shad was being happily consumed long before white settlers landed on New England shores. While shad consumption has declined substantially over the past 50 years, traditionalists still value not only the roe, but also the flavorful flesh of this large cousin of herring. Like salmon, shad is a great source of omega-3-rich oil.

Applewood Bacon Pan-Roasted Shad RoeClassic preparations for shad roe are generally pretty simple and often include bacon, which adds a nice salty, smoky touch. This recipe was based on one included in my first cookbook, “Mystic Seafood: Great Recipes, History and Seafaring Lore from Mystic Seaport,” Globe Pequot Press, 2007.

3 strips apple-cured bacon
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup sliced shallots
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Three pairs shad roe
1/4 cup chopped chives
Lemon wedges, for garnish

1. Cook the bacon in a large frying pan until crisp. Remove the bacon, drain it on paper towels and reserve. Add the butter to the frying pan and melt.

2. Add the shallots and sauté until soft. Remove to a plate.

3. Mix the flour, salt, pepper and Old Bay seasoning on a plate. Dredge the shad roe in this seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.

4. Increase the heat to medium and add the roe to the pan. Fry for about five minutes on each side, until golden brown.

5. Serve hot, with the pan juices and sautéed shallots spooned over and garnished with crumbled bacon, chopped chives and lemon wedges on the side.

Shad roasts are a spring tradition in some states, especially Connecticut and Virginia. The seasonal “shad bush” and “shad frog” both take their names from the timing of the shad’s journey upriver to breed in spring. The run begins in the south as early as January, and finishes around May in the North Atlantic states. In a traditional shad roast, they are planked and cooked over an open fire much like salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Shad fillets are your best bet because shad is one of the boniest fishes on the planet. Adult shad are estimated to have more than 1,000 bones, but that would vary depending on the size of the fish. According to renowned New England chef Jasper White, deboning requires 16 different incisions to remove the small bones. “This work was traditionally done by women in Connecticut and other places where there was a commercial shad run. In the old days, when the roe was normally purchased with the fillets, we used to wrap the roe in the fillets and cook slowly, basting with butter all the while.”

It is said to have been George Washington’s favorite fish but I’m guessing he didn’t have to bone them himself. (Or with wooden teeth, perhaps he ate them whole?)

For my money, unless you can get an invite to an old-fashioned shad roast or find a supplier of fillets, the shad roe is the big payoff. The twin lobes of eggs are found on either side of the shad’s abdomen. Some cooks recommend gently parboiling the roe to help the lobes keep their shape and to shorten cooking time. But whatever you do, cook them gently. Handled roughly or at too high a heat, they can, well, explode. There are numerous recipes for shad roe online, which often include bacon. Some people eat their shad roe with eggs.

If you live along the Eastern seaboard of the United States and have a really great fishmonger nearby, they may be able to get it for you. And there are a number of online purveyors that can get you the goods PDQ, but be very sure to call ahead or inquire online if you are planning a shad roe feast. The season is fleeting.