Welcoming the first roes of spring

White perch roe can be dredged in flour and pan fried. / Photo by David Deutsch

I walked up to the seafood counter at my local market this week and there they were: fat, red sacs of shad roe. To many on the mid-Atlantic coast, that roe – not the first crocus, not the first robin – is the true sign of spring.

Fishermen say when the forsythia blooms, the shad are in the river. So are the yellow perch, the carp, the rockfish and whatever fish are in your neighborhood lakes and rivers. And they’re fat with eggs.

While shad roe always has been one of the ephemeral pleasures of late winter, the roe of other fish has virtually disappeared from the table. Now, shad roe is not always the only species of fish eggs in the seafood case.

Finding non-shad roe, however, is still challenging. My fishmonger says most fish eggs get thrown out because shoppers are unfamiliar with anything but shad roe. Spring fish are full of eggs, but most people say they don’t want it, he says.

They should think twice.

Americans once ate many kinds of fish roe. In a 1941 press release, the U.S. Department of the Interior encouraged it.

“In all civilized countries,” the release read, “the roes of certain fishes are of recognized high quality and classed among the most valuable of fishery products.” In 1939, it continued, 36,000 cases of canned roe from sturgeon, whitefish, salmon and herring, were available “for the delectation of American gourmets.”

The eggs of shad, pollock, mullet, cod and haddock also were “quite extensively” available fresh salted or canned, according to the release.

Canned herring roe, for example, once was a Southern staple. Spring breakfast often meant roe and eggs or roe cakes. However, what was an inexpensive food is now a rare treat since the dramatic decline of the herring stock.

The government was so eager to get Americans to include roe in their diets in 1941 that the interior department’s press release even included 10 recipes for baked and fried roe as well as escalloped roe, deviled roe and roe Creole style.

Shad roe is the most familiar roe on the market. / AFR photo by Bonny Wolf

Fish roe also was promoted as a good source of protein – at least as good as the fish from which it comes. The downside? It’s pretty high in cholesterol.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was unfamiliar even with shad roe. Now along with cooking shad roe, I have begun experimenting with the roe of other fish. The most daring I’ve gotten is cooking a whole shad stuffed with shad roe and cooked with lemon, leeks and herbs in a slow oven for more than six hours. Yes, six hours. Marylanders told me this is common practice. It sounded insane. It was moist and delicious. The shad’s millions of tiny bones – often a deterrent to eating the fish – had melted.

I’ve sautéed cornmeal-dusted rockfish roe in butter. The more delicate yellow perch eggs I dredged in seasoned flour and pan fried, the same way I cook shad roe.

I’m ready to move on to the roe of lobsters, scallops and sea urchins, roes sometimes called coral because of their color.

Cooking fish roe seems a logical extension of today’s nose-to-tail movement. Nothing is wasted. So if you buy fresh fish from a reputable dealer, ask if you can have the roe. It’s not always advertised.

The late Edna Lewis, the dean of Southern cooks, was raised in a Virginia piedmont farming community. In her 1976 book “The Taste of Country Cooking,” she described growing up eating shad and its roe for breakfast with eggs, bacon, fresh honey and dandelion wine. “It was,” she wrote, “truly a meal to celebrate the coming of spring.”

 

Makes 4 servings

AFR Tested

Sauteed White Perch Roe

Any fresh fish roe can be cooked this way. White perch roe is in small sacs and has a mild flavor. Rockfish (striped bass) roe is darker with a stronger taste, more like shad roe. This recipe is based on one from Dori Sanders' "Country Cooking" (Workman, 1995).

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup milk
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 8 to 10 sets white perch roe
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 large onion, halved, then thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Instructions

In a shallow baking dish, combine the milk, salt and pepper and mix well.

In a second shallow baking dish, combine the cornmeal and flour and mix well.

Dip the roe first into the milk mixture, then into the cornmeal mixture, coating all sides.

In a heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the roe and cook on one side until golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn the roe and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the roe is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Roe should be just turning opaque, evenly slightly rare. Overcooked roe is rubbery. Transfer to a warm plate.

In the same skillet, heat the remaining oil until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted and browning, another minute. Add the lemon juice, stir to blend well, and spoon mixture over the roe. Serve immediately.

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28 Responses to Welcoming the first roes of spring

  1. Helen February 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    Yep, it’s shad and shad roe before March corned beef. Just spotted it at my market too. I’ve always eaten the delicate shad, but accidentally tackled the roe one day snitching a bite of what I thought was cold steak from my parents’ frig. I liked it!

    • Avatar of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal February 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

      Cold? Really? And you liked it. Hmmm….I confess I’ve never had it. Anything like liver? (which I love)

      • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
        Bonny Wolf February 27, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

        Nothing like liver. Because of all the tiny eggs, it’s granular. Flavor varies according to type of fish. I’d recommend eating it hot.

        • Avatar of Eddie Ribo
          Eddie Ribo February 28, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

          I agree, not like liver. The shad roe does have a strong “fishy” flavor, but not unpleasant. I agree it probably is best hot and must be fresh! It has such an interesting texure on the tongue, like grits or oatmeal?

          • Avatar of American Food Roots
            American Food Roots February 28, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

            Yes, Eddie — I agree with your textural analysis! Bonny

  2. Wayne Byram February 28, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    I bet the roe would be great in a Hushpuppy. Good job Bonny on your sautéed roe, I would love to have some with breakfast this morning.

    • Avatar of American Food Roots
      American Food Roots February 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks Wayne and what an interesting idea. Hope someone tries it and reports back.

  3. Avatar of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb February 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Brilliantly informative.

    Roe is something we rarely think about here, the only association generally people make with fish eggs is caviar, I had no idea that so many types were available. Or available if you can hunt them down. Would your local supermarket fishmonger have or keep roe if you asked them to? I love the part about the long cooked shad, you’re right, those bones can be hugely off-putting and now you’ve shared a secret way to get rid of them, thanks! Do you know why they disintegrate after that long, slow cooking? You’ve certainly made me want to explore the subject further.

    • Avatar of American Food Roots
      American Food Roots February 28, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      There are so many bones they’re sometimes called porcupine fish. Finding boned shad can be difficult because boning them is an art. The millions of bones, though, are tiny and sort of melt with that long cooking. Bonny

  4. Avatar of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb February 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    And a very cool idea about a roe hushpuppy Wayne. Let me know if you give it a try, I’d love to hear how it turns out.

  5. Kendra Bailey Morris February 28, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    Really great article, Bonny. I love shad roe, especially fried. It’s such a treat when it’s in season. I will definitely have to try your recipe. I also love the hushpuppy idea. I bet that would work brilliantly!

    Kendra

    • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf February 28, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks Kendra. I think Wayne is onto something with the hushpuppy plan.

  6. Avatar of Eddie Ribo
    Eddie Ribo February 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    We attend the Shad Fest in Lambertville NJ right on the Delaware river each year. I can remember my brother who lived in NY on the Delaware would catch the Shad and bring some to my mom who would soak it overnight in milk, then coat with corn meal and pan fry it in butter -crispy on the outside and so tender and lucious on the inside. Check out the site if in New Jersey in April: http://www.lambertville.org/ShadFestival.jsp

    • Avatar of American Food Roots
      American Food Roots February 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

      there also are shad plankings in the spring in Virginia. Shad is put on a flank and cooked over and open fire. shad roe too. and, I think, potato salad. Bonny

  7. Avatar of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb February 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Man, that sounds good Eddie.

  8. Nancy Pollard February 28, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Bonny,

    Years ago, you published a recipe for shad roe in which the roe was poached quickly before sauteeing it. I have lost the recipe and wanted to know if you could publish as well. It was a heavenly recipe

    • Avatar of American Food Roots
      American Food Roots February 28, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

      Nancy — I’ve gone through all the recipes I’ve done for shad roe and can’t find one with poached roe. I vaguely remember poaching roe sometime, somewhere but, sadly, remember no more than that. Will let you know if I find it. Sorry! Bonny

  9. Avatar of Wayne Byram
    Wayne Byram February 28, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Now Ya’ll, I’ve got to find some roe!

  10. Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
    Domenica Marchetti March 1, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    I wonder if shad roe could be cured the way bottarga is in Italy. It’s a Sardinian and Sicilian specialty of fish roe (mullet, tuna or swordfish) that is pressed, then dried and cured for a few weeks in salt. It is often grated over pasta. Anyone want to start a Made in the USA bottarga business with me?

    • Avatar of Andrew Marin
      Andrew Marin March 1, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      I don’t know how I could from down here, but I volunteer. Bottarga is sublime.

  11. robert-woo March 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    I remember fishing for shad on the Connecticut River and it was madness with the bank lined with fisherman. Up until a few years ago, I was getting fillets from someone who knew how to do it, some smoked, some fresh, and…….containers of roe, which my mother loved. I always thought of it not as an acquired taste but an acquired texture. It was rather bland, but it did not have a briny “pop” in the mouth like caviar. And I think if someone poached it first, it would be even more…..just grainy and with less flavor, however subtle. Last time I had some, I enjoyed sauteing one (dusted with seasoned flour) and then folding that into a really soft omelet.

    Thinking of other roe, how many miss the roe in lobster? Many simply toss the head and body, but in there lies the tomalley (liver – red which turns green with a light saute in butter and is a fabulous cholesterol bomb) and, in a female, the roe (and yes, one can distinguish a female lobster: the last “flippers” on tail, closest to body, are flat(er) than male). And just like in crab, there is all that lovely sweet meat in the body one has to work for. Most people only eat claws and tail and toss rest.

    I had my first taste of bottarga in Florence and loved it……but they were a little too generous with it and the salt got to me. Sure, Domenica, I’d start a business with you for shad bottarga. But I think it is already too popular, in season, just fresh.

    • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf March 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

      Bottarga once was sold encased in wax but now is more often vacuum packed. Like other processed roes, bottarga (called boutargue in French) is available online, but Domenica’s and Robert’s will definitely be better.

      I’ve also made Greek taramasalata with cured roe. The fish of choice is gray mullet, but because that is hard to find, most taramasalata is made with carp roe. I found a jar at a Greek market and made a creamy dip using milk-soaked bread, oil, lemon juice and yogurt. Addictive.

  12. Avatar of Scott Vance
    Scott Vance March 2, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Bonny, did you ever go to the annual shad planking put on by the Wakefield Ruritan Club? It’s kind of a must-attend for Virginia politicians, held in a woods outside Wakefield, Va. Started in ’49, it’s become quite a production lately. The planked shad was pretty good the couple of times I went. The club’s “nailing and scaling” committee handles the planking and another committee fries the roe. More for anyone interested, from the Virginian-Pilot: http://bit.ly/YfB7yK Or at the Ruritans’ http://www.shadplanking.com

    • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf March 3, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

      Scott — I have written about it and always wanted to go. Shad plankings are required of all Virginia politicians I understand. What a good alternative to rubber chicken.

  13. Mary Bartlett March 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Bonny- Your article made me realize that spring without shad roe is tough.Here in the Northwest and in California, there’s plenty of shad but it never shows up in the fish markets. And I’d like to know why not. I guess not enough of us had that springtime thrill. Thanks for the memory!

    • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf March 8, 2013 at 6:52 am #

      Mary, you have all that wonderful fish! Ask for the roe that they probably throw away. You will do something delicious with it. Send us the recipe.

      • Mary Bartlett March 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

        I’ll try, Bonny. In fact, I did learn that most of the salmon roe around here (Oregon) goes for bait!

        • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
          Bonny Wolf March 10, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

          Oh no! I bet salmon roe is delicious.

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