Rite of Spring: Shad Roe

Betsy Andrews

I consider early spring the best time of year. Not because of the bud break, no; because of the shad roe. The egg sac of a member of the herring family, shad roe is my very favorite food. Right now, when shad migrate upriver to spawn, they're culled not only for their bony, white fillets but for their crimson roe, which grows inside cleft-shaped sacs, one pair of lobes per female. Shad roe is so delicious that through the rest of the year, I pine for March spawning season. But populations have been so depreciated from habitat loss and overfishing, it doesn't feel right to eat it for any more than one meal a year. So, I try to make it a good one.

Like the Victorians, I prefer shad roe for breakfast. I like to pan-fry the lobes in butter until they're firm to the touch and a dark golden brown. Then I blanket them in plenty of carmelly, custardy sauteed shallots, and drizzle on a caper-brown butter sauce, made with a little white wine and squeeze of lemon. Served alongside teensy roasted potatoes and a fried egg, the lily gilded with chopped parsley and chives, it's a ridiculously luxurious way to wake up: the shad roe is wonderfully meaty, slightly livery, and with a deeply umami taste. In its richness and flavor, it falls somewhere between kidneys and sweetbreads, rather as if the animal that it came from didn't swim in the river so much as walked its banks. It wants a glass of wine before noon. It wants a nap directly afterwards.

As a meal, it's terribly sophisticated and satisfying. And it makes me feel part of a legacy of legendary bon vivants: Joseph Mitchell, the midcentury New Yorker's streetwise columnist, gathering tales of the Fulton Fish Market over an early-morning shad roe omelet at a fishmongers' hangout. Or Eartha Kitt singing Cole Porter: "Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe." __