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.
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.”
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).
- 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
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.