Friday, March 7, 2008

Of Spring and Groundhogs—Shad Roe

That damned ground hog up in Pennsylvania truly hogs the media spotlight, yet knows nothing about spring when compared to the shad! Each year, American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) start their annual migrations from saltwater up the freshwater rivers along the East Coast to spawn. It may feel like the middle of winter, but there is no clearer sign of spring’s appearance than the first sets of shad roe—shad egg sacs—in the market.

Shad roe come in sets of two crescent-shaped sacs of eggs that many people describe as disgusting looking. Ranging in color from pale beige to crimson depending on the diet of the shad, they’re certainly not the most beautiful things on earth, but they are far from disgusting, especially to taste. Shad roe have a mild, almost nutty flavor with a hint of fish. Some customers have compared it to liver, but shad roe is unlike any liver that I have ever tasted.

I’m a Virginia boy through and through and as the Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries constitute the largest domestic shad fishery, I grew up eating shad and its roe, and when we couldn’t get shad roe, herring roe and scrambled eggs would suffice nicely. I certainly don’t remember eating shad roe for the first time and until I was out of college, I never knew that people disliked it. In college at the University of Virginia, I used to make special trips to the C&O Restaurant in the spring, just to feast on shad roe.

I’ve since learned that shad roe is one of those polarizing dishes: either you fall into the lover or the hater camp. There appears to be no middle ground, although many of those who claim to hate it simply don’t have the nerve to try it. Which phases us shad roe lovers not in the least: it simply leaves more for us!

I’ve never seen shad roe on the market any earlier than this year, when we started serving them February 12. For me and other devotees, cooking the first shad roe of the year is a rite of spring. My ritual always involves rendering some bacon and finishing the dish with white wine, lemon juice, and capers. Over the years, I have moved completely away from pan-frying the roe to roasting them in the oven. The sacs don’t burst and so the presentation is much nicer.

I think I know what I’m going to fix myself for lunch today! Owning a restaurant does have its benefits!


  1. Cooking shad in the oven is a revelatory idea to me! I am lifelong shad roe lover from Chadds Ford Pa where our family had it always and nobody was squeamish. Brilliant to put capers with shad! Can you be more specific about your oven method? What temp? Any butter?

  2. Ellen,

    After over 20 years of having shad roe sacs burst in the frying pan and plaster me in the face with hot oil and roe shrapnel, I decided one day to throw them in the oven and I have never looked back. The texture is better, the process is less messy, and most importantly, my customers all say that it's the best shad roe they've ever had.

    But yet, this method is quasi-heretical in my family! ;)

    We have a very hot oven. The thermostat doesn't work, but I'd guess that it is a little south of a pizza oven in temperature, probably 550-600F.

    As for the method, we oil (butter is going to scorch at this temperature) a sizzle platter, a shallow aluminum oval platter available at restaurant supply houses and on the web, and place the roe on the platter and put the platter in the oven.

    While the roe is roasting, we prepare a sauce, typically involving bacon, lemon, and capers.

    I cook the roe for about 3-4 minutes on one side and then flip it for another 2-3. Timing will vary depending on how hot the oven is, how big the roe is (we only use jumbos, but most grocery stores only stock larges), and how done you want the roe.

    I use the finger test to determine when the roe is done. Out of the oven it comes when it just firms up. This leaves the roe not quite cooked all the way through and a bit creamy in the center, which I prefer.

    My sous chef, on the other hand, does not flip the roe and consequently, it takes a good bit longer for the roe to firm up. Flipping the roe on a hot sizzle platter can be tricky if you don't have a lot of experience at it, so you might want to try his method first. The end results are approximately equal.

  3. Thanks for answering! I am going to try it.

    I am assuming that in the rendered bacon fat you make the sauce w/ the wine, lemon juice, and capers and, after pouring it over the roasted shad, you crumble the bacon over top?

    I also had the pleasure of herring roe and scrambled eggs for breakfast growing up. Wouldn't even know where to obtain that roe now.


  4. Yes, the bacon definitely goes on the plate with the roe. We tend to use diced slab bacon, in which case, it becomes part of the sauce along with the capers and gets spooned over the roe. We sometimes slice the bacon into rashers, in which case, we usually lay them over the roe.

    My sous chef did a great preparation once in which he put a slice of French toast on the plate and the roe over that. Then topped it with bacon and a fried quail egg. A drizzle of maple syrup to finish it. Really a superb dish. Breakfast for dinner!

  5. My father would have called your last entry "gilding the lily". He did not believe in even bacon. Anyway, here is my Richmond VA method taught to me by my mother-in-law: saute in butter on top of the stove on low-medium flame, COVERED. If it pops, turn down the heat. Six minutes a side. Take off the heat when you flip, to avoid a stray pop. The result is a beautiful golden color, and it is moist. We add bacon, and accompany with asparagus.

  6. I agree with you about the French toast version being gilding of the lily, but as a nod to a sumptuous breakfast, it has its place.

    Last evening I cooked the best roe ever, with bacon and capers as stated above. Timing is critical in my estimation and the more roe I cook, the more attuned my sense of when to pull them out of the oven becomes.

    Six minutes a side, no matter how low the heat is, will yield roe that is overcooked to my taste.

  7. if you don't eat with egg, how do you eat this? As an appetizer, main dish? Thank you!

  8. We serve a set (roughly 12-16 ounces of roe) as an entree. There's quite enough there for a main dish for a very hungry individual and almost enough for two. To do an appetizer portion, you'd either have to get a small set or only serve a part of a set.