Shad Broiled in the James Beard Manner

Shad is one of the oldest members of the herring family but one of the least familiar. Largely because the spiny structure of the fish makes it both difficult to catch and eat.

Shad is found in coastal waters on both sides of the North Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and off the Pacific Coast, where it was successfully transplanted about 100 years ago. Like salmon, it enters the warmer waters of rivers to spawn every spring. It is at this point that it is usually caught, and more pertinently when shad roe appears on August restaurant menus around the country.

Average roe shad (females) weigh upwards of 2 to 8 pounds while males rarely ever are more than 4 or 5 pounds. At peak of freshness this fish's color is inky blue-green, shading to silver at the sides and underbelly. Uninitiated consumers are cautioned never to purchase shad that is either pale in color or dry to the touch. The former indicates too long a stay away from the water and the latter, a stint in the freezer. Needless to say, shad does not freeze well. The flesh inevitably becomes mealy as a baked potato after defrosting.

Never an Easy Task

The best way to buy shad is filleted and boned; never an easy task. Epicureans claim that only a great surgeon can perform the task with any grace, on the deck of a yacht or a dinner plate. Since shad has a double row of Y-shaped (intramuscular) bones aligned to its spine, the way to get at these bones is tricky.

The standard course of attack is with a boning knife, making a narrow slit at the tail and edging forward. But keeping a weather eye on the blade all the while so as not to puncture the precious cargo of roe. When the fish is fully split and the roe removed, then and only then can the bones be actually attacked. Experienced fish mongers usually perform this job skin side down, making lateral slashes from nape to tail and inserting the knife tip around each spine so every one of those 360 bones are pulled free.

If your knife is rusty or misplaced, take a tip from me and make your initial bout with shad at the best seafood establishment in town.

The late James Beard, who was a shad devotee, liked the fish boned and unpampered. When he learned that the French stuff it with fresh sorrel, because oxalic acid in the leaves literally dissolves the shad's bones after five hours of cooking, he pronounced: "If you care to eat an overcooked, tasteless slice, by all means try it! I'll go my own way." BROILED SHAD IN THE JAMES BEARD MANNER

1 (3- to 4-pound) whole shad, boned and split

1 tablespoon dry vermouth

2 teaspoons flour

1 teaspoon oil

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

Salt, pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Lemon wedges

Rub cavity of boned shad with vermouth. Allow to stand at least 10 minutes. Dust with flour.

Coat baking sheet or hardwood plank with oil. Place shad, skin side down, on top. Dot with butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Broil fish about 3 or 4 inches from flame, basting with more butter if needed, until meat flakes easily when pierced with fork, about 8 to 10 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with lemon wedges. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Shad has a delicate flavor. This taste is enhanced in my opinion by the merest hint of anise liqueur in the following cream-topped version. SHAD BAKED IN CREAM

1 (3- to 4-pound) whole shad, boned and split

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 shallot, minced

Salt, pepper

3/4 cup whipping cream or half and half

1 teaspoon Pernod

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Butter large baking dish with 1/2 tablespoon butter and arrange minced shallot in pan. Place shad, skin side down, on top. Dot with remaining butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 400 degrees 20 minutes.

Combine cream and Pernod. Pour over fish. Continue to bake 10 minutes, basting frequently. Serve with chopped parsley and pan juices. Makes 3 or 4 servings.

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