What I was looking for was rhubarb, that rusty-red oddball harbinger of spring here in North Carolina. Planted in big patches out by the pathway to the summertime garden, rhubarb stalks poke up early and beckon cooks to make pies as a farewell to winter and “y’all come on in!” to the blossoming sunshine season sometime between mid-March and mid-April. Not this early, however, not even at my local Whole Foods where fresh rhubarb shows up around this time of year.
Meandering past the fish and seafood counter at my local Whole Foods, I spied a Southern springtime specialty which had not even crossed my mind: shad roe. The biggest member of the herring family, shad (Alosa sapidissima) are anadromus, like salmon, sturgeon, smelt, and striped bass: born in fresh water, they swim downriver to live in the ocean until time to spawn. Then they migrate back upriver during their spawning season, which in the case of American shad, is spring. Treasured by native Americans, shad has been valued both as a tasty (albeit very bony) fish and as the source of shad roe, which are pan sauteed, simmered in cream, and scrambled with eggs among other preparations. They grow to about 2 pounds/24 inches, and live for about 5 years in the wild.
Though I’m a North Carolinian born and raised, and though my fascination with and affection for traditional old-time foods in general and Southern heirlooms in particular, I neither knew about nor tasted shad roe until last year at Crook’s Corner, where my friend Bill Smith puts it on his menu each spring
But there it was, carefully arranged on ice in a row of flame-red glistening lobes, beautifully accented with slices of lime. The nice young man who helped me recommended pan frying it with bacon and serving it with grits. The words ‘bacon’ and ‘grits’ gave me the green light to make the leap from sweet to savory, from rhubarb to shad. Heading to my Southern food bookshelves, I found abundant information on shad, from John Martin Taylor (Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking); John Egerton (Southern Food); Jean Anderson (A Love Affair with Southern Cooking); Damon Lee Fowler (Classical Southern Cooking); and Eugene Walter (Time-Life Foods of the World: The American South). My friend Bill Smith’s book “Seasoned In the South” contained a recipe as well. I’m sure there’s more, but by that time I was ripe and ready to get this beautiful and beloved food to the stove and the table.
It was a matter of frying up some bacon (or side meat or pancetta) and keeping the grease hot grease for cooking onions and the shad roe in the rich salty gifts left in the skillet.Cooking a pot of grits, which takes about 30 to 35 minutes — good to start the grits and let them simmer and soften up while you cook the bacon, onions and shad. These lovely grits were on the shelf in the same grocery store, in a charming cloth sack with recipes on the back….Note the big nubby texture and colorful nature of good old time grits. Such a pleasure to cook and to eat. I plan to try the shrimp and grits recipe right on the bag….
While the grits were cooking, I fried the bacon and then the sliced purple onion in the same grease. Once the grits were done, I covered them and set them on the back burner while I finished up the shad roe.
Here’s my one ‘set’ of shad roe, a pair, which I gently separated just before cooking, and dredged lightly in flour. The flour was absorbed by the time I got them into the pan. They need gentle handling, but not too a wildly fussy degree. I let them get nice and brown before turning, as you want to minimize turns. Here below is my finished dish. Very hearty and very satisfying. All the recipes I saw recommended big portions for each person — to me, this is more of a go-with, Asian style. Half a set with lots of grits onion and bacon was plenty for me. I wouldn’t mind some scrambled eggs on the side, matter of fact.
Bill Smith’s Shad Roe with Red Onion, Bacon, and Grits
I’ve adapted Bill’s recipe, from Seasoned in the South, here, using bacon instead of side meat or pancetta, and trading in the lovely wilted salad he includes in his recipe for good ol’ grits, which I had on hand and longed to sample in the classic (fried fish or seafood + grits) combination. I loved it — rustic, homey, a little bit wild. If you love liver pudding/liver mush, ultra aromatic and blue-veined cheeses, and durian, as I do, you are a good candidate for shad roe fan-dom. Shad roe shares the texture of grits, making the pairing especially pleasing. While this Southern treasure shows up in spring, it seems to me a rustic, hearty, basso bye-bye from wintertime, unlike asparagus, rhubarb, lamb and other standard primavera pleasures. I had only one pair/set of shad roe, so the portion above has a more modest serving of grits and onions than this recipe.
4 pairs (or sets) of shad roe
(Cooked grits, to serve 4 people, hot and ready to serve)
1/2 pound side meat, pancetta or bacon
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium-sized red onion, peeled and cut into strips. (about 2 cups)
1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley
4 tablespoons lemon juice, plus chunks of lemon for garnish and extra seasoning
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Rinse the pairs, also known as ‘sets’, of shad roe gently. Place them in ice water to firm them up. (They are encased in a membrane that you want to leave intact, but sometimes there are extraneous veins and connective tissue that you should try to carefully remove. In a large skillet, cook the bacon, or dice and render the side meat. Remove the cooked bacon or side meat to a plate. Make sure the grease is still nice and hot, and add the thinly sliced purple onion. Cook, turning and tossing often, until the onions are softened, shiny, and fragrant. Add the parsley and toss well. Transfer onions to the plate alongside the bacon, and set aside.
To cook the shad roe: Heat the bacon grease in the same skillet over medium-high heat. (If using side meat and it seems a little skimpy, you may augment it with butter or oil. Mix together the flour and salt. Prick the shad roe a few times on both side with a straight pin. (I Nancie did not do this. No pin handy, plus I plumb forgot. No problem ensued.) Dredge the shad roe sets in the flour and shake off the excess. Fry in the grease, turning once, carefully, about 3 to 4 minutes on the first side and 2 or 3 minutes on the second side. They will brown a little. Be careful because sometimes they will pop, especially toward the end of cooking. When they are hot through, remove from heat.
Pour a generous portion of the grits onto a serving platter, or into a large serving bowl. Place the shad roe on the grits. Break or crumble the bacon into nice chunky pieces. Arrange the crumbled bacon and the purple onions alongside the shad roe on the grits. Squeeze lemon juice over the shad roe, and garnish with additional lemon chunks if you have them. Serve hot.
#Let’s Lunch is a worldwide-web-based circle of food writers who blog about a theme each month. This month the theme is Daffodils and other (edible) signs of spring. Grab a plate and go see what my friends in the #LetsLunch circle have served up on their various blogs for your reading/cooking/eating/dreaming pleasure:
Don’t forget to check out other Let’s Lunchers’ daffodil/spring/life dishes below! And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or, post a comment below.
Annabelle‘s Red Pepper and Eggplant Confit at Glass of Fancy
Anne Marie‘s Zihuatanejo (Or Veal Shank Redemption Sammy) at Sandwich Surprise
Cheryl’s Singaporean Barley Water at A Tiger In the Kitchen
Grace‘s Meyer Lemon and Mandarin Citrus Bundt Cake at HapaMama
Karen‘s Wasabi Tuna Steak at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Brassica Fried Rice at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Salad of Chargrilled Sourdough, Tomato and Haloumi Cheese at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Lucy‘s Carrot Souffle at A Cook and Her Books
Monica‘s Roses and Eggplant at A Life of Spice
Rebecca‘s Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Mango Foam at Grongar Blog
And leave me a comment on what spring means for you in the kitchen and at the table. If spring gives you ideas and inspirations for food and cooking, leave me a note about that in the comments.