Spring's delicacies are fleeting. Tulips and daffodils, fiddlehead ferns and native asparagus make their appearance for a few weeks, then fade away until the next year.
The same can be said for Alosa sapidissima, better known as shad, the herring family fish prized for its roe and sweet fillets. Local fishermen, prowling the
Chefs and fishmongers know that demand is high for the seasonal fish, which was an important food source in colonial times. "We barely get enough in to meet the demand," says Lisa Feinman, owner of Atlantic Seafood Market in
Tripp plans to move shad center stage during a "Celebration of the Connecticut River Valley" food week June 4 through June 10. Until then, shad and its roe will appear on the restaurant's menu as a special of the day. Tripp says he likes the "buttery" texture of the fish, which is high in heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids. "People like that about shad, but it's one of the boniest fish in the world," he says. "You have to rely on the fishmonger to clean it well."
His preferred cooking method is oven-baking, and he chooses another Connecticut valley specialty — fiddlehead ferns — as the garnish. Tripp likes to lay strips of bacon atop the fish and believes that both the bacon and oven-baking enhance the fish's "light, smoky flavor." The same technique would work on the grill, he says.
As a daily special, Tripp offers the seasonal fish three ways on the menu: shad by itself, the roe by itself, or the shad and the roe. "People consider the roe a true, true delicacy," he says, "but if they come in and can make up their minds, they can get a sampling of each." To prepare the roe, he gently poaches it in a court bouillon of white wine, clam juice, fresh lemon juice and chopped shallots.
At Max's Oyster Bar in
Lee also likes the combination of shad and roe. Both the fillets and the roe are pan-roasting with salt and pepper, then served with bacon vinaigrette, grilled asparagus and mashed potatoes.
Brasserie Pip at the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton takes a different approach to serving the seasonal fish. "We smoke it and we cure it," says chef Tyler Anderson. "We take smoked shad and steamed shade, add cream and butter and make rillettes as an appetizer."
Anderson, whose restaurant is open Thursday through Saturday with more evenings added for the summer season, likes to serve the rough pate with caviar-style roe. He cooks the bacon-wrapped roe in the sous vide method, a technique that cooks food, sealed in plastic, in a simmering water bath. The method ensures even cooking and keeps the food moist. Before serving, he sears the roe. "It's texturally challenging. That's why I like to do something different, like serving [the roe] like caviar," says Anderson, who is opening a restaurant in June in the former Hop Brook Tavern in Simsbury.
During shad season, Feinman and her chef, Jerry Doran, often conduct grilling demonstrations outdoors in front of the Atlantic Seafood Market. They show customers how to grill the fish, using cedar planks.
Members of the Essex Rotary Club, which will host its 54th annual Shad Bake June 2 at the Essex Elementary School, use red oak planks, propped vertically around smoldering wood embers, to cook 300 pounds of shad fillets for the feast. Strips of pork, nailed to the planks, hold each fillet in place as well as flavor the shad. "That's a critical component," bake master Joseph Shea says of the pork. A secret blend of oil and spices is brushed on each fillet before cooking.
"It takes a little under an hour to do the baking," he says. "[The fillets] come off the red oak planks, and the flavor is unbelievable. You can't cook it the way we do in a restaurant."
"It is the quintessential Connecticut River event," Shea says. "There is nothing like it."
The 54th Annual Essex Rotary Shad Bake will take place June 2 from 4 to 7 on the grounds of the Essex Elementary School in Essex. The dinner will take place rain or shine with on the lawn or at indoor or outdoor tables. Besides planked shad, the meal will include fresh-shucked oysters and clams, chicken, hot dogs, salads and apple pie. Proceeds from the event will benefit Rotary Club projects, especially scholarships. The club awards two $3000 scholarships each year for up to four years. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children 12 to 18 and free for children under 12. To purchase tickets, visit http://www.essexrotary.com.