Spring's shad season, viewed in the microcosm of Washington area fish markets, is a little hit-and-miss so far this year. Recent rainy weather has interrupted operations; fillets can sell out quickly while the meaty, orange-red sets of shad roe seem plentiful. Shad from the Carolinas has been available for a few weeks here, with some Virginia shad just making the annual spawning run from ocean to river.
The roe is an acquired taste, and the fish itself is oily and full of bones, as many as 1,300 of them. Even fillets may need further deboning. In his 2008 "Savannah Cookbook," Southern cookbook author Damon Lee Fowler lays out a map: Each side of the fish has three rows of bones: a center row running through the thickest part, perpendicular to the backbone, and two more fine, hairlike rows running down both the back and belly. The bones interlock and splay out in three directions at the tail end.
In this recipe, Fowler forgoes the usual addition of bacon. Instead, he broils the fillets and roe with butter, lemon juice and vermouth to keep the fish moist at the edges. The method lightly caramelizes the tops of the fillets and and enriches their flavor while keeping the fish moist. Even if you can't get your hands on shad for this evening, this technique would work just as well for fillets of sole, catfish or snapper.
Serve with boiled new potatoes.
- 2 to 3 skin-on shad fillets (about 12 ounces each), plus 1 set of shad roe (optional; see headnote)
- Juice of 2 medium lemons, plus 2 lemons cut into wedges
- 4 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the baking dish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sweet paprika
- Dry vermouth (may substitute dry white wine)
Position the top oven rack about 8 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, rinse the shad (and roe, if using) and pat it dry with paper towels.
Squeeze the juice from 2 lemons to yield at least 1/4 cup.
Use butter to liberally grease a large, shallow baking dish or gratin dish large enough to hold the shad fillets and roe, if using, in a single layer. (Alternatively, line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.)
Place the fillets skin side down in the baking dish or gratin dish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice, then season lightly with salt, pepper and paprika. Use the remaining butter to dot the fish.
Carefully pour a little vermouth around the edges of the fish; make sure there is just enough to keep the fillet edges moist and not enough to cover the fish. Use a toothpick to poke a few holes in the roe (if using); this will prevent them from puffing up.
Broil for 10 to 14 minutes, until the fillets flake easily with a fork. If using the roe, turn them over after 7 or 8 minutes. The fish will be opaque and slightly browned on top (and the roe should be somewhat firm and not too browned).
Serve straight from the hot baking or gratin dish, being careful to avoid the fillet bones. Spoon some of the pan juices over the fish (and roe), if desired, with lemon wedges on the side.
Adapted from Fowler's "Savannah Cookbook" (Gibbs Smith, 2008).
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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