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There's More Than One Way to Bone a Shad
Some foods seem to have been put on earth to challenge the ingenuity of the cook, and to reward the clever ones. Olives, for example, are inedibly bitter when they come off the tree, and require curing with salt or alkali to make them palatable. And it was certainly a hungry person who figured out how to cook and trim the thorny thistle buds we call artichokes to get at the tasty morsels at the base of the leaves. A similar challenge among fish is separating the delicious meat of shad from its many tiny bones.
A large member of the herring family, American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is native to the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Florida, where it spawns in spring in larger rivers. Commercial shad fisheries coincide with the fish's spawning runs, and follow the spring northward, from the late winter run on the St. Johns River in Florida to the Connecticut River fishery, which peaks in April and May.
In the 1870s shad was introduced to the Pacific coast, where it now ranges from central California to British Columbia. In California it is strictly a game fish, and is popular with anglers in the Sacramento River system and on the Russian River starting in April. Farther north, there is a commercial fishery on the Columbia in May and June.
Most of the value of shad is in the roe, the large egg sacs of spawning females. The rest of the fish, especially the male fish, often sells fairly cheaply, a bonus for those who like flavorful fish. Like other members of the herring family, shad has rich, sweet meat that looks dark when raw but cooks to a creamy color. Unfortunately, this meat is laced with scores of small bones, in a pattern much more complicated than that of most fish. Where a typical fish has a single row of long, slender "pin bones" or "floating ribs" running through the meat, shad has three rows and many bones which branch into a Y shape.
With practice, a sharp fillet knife, and knowledge of the bone structure, it is possible to cut out these bones without totally mangling the meat, resulting in a fillet that is actually several overlapping strips of meat connected to the skin. Many East Coast fish markets have experienced shad cutters who bone hundreds of fillets each season, and have the technique down to a few minutes of work.
Elsewhere, experienced shad cutters may be rare, and cooks who find whole shad in the market are on their own. Each spring, when the shad show up in the market, I pull out a booklet published some years ago by the California Department of Fish and Game (but now, sad to say, out of print) entitled "How to Catch, Bone and Cook a Shad." Following the 32 illustrated steps in the book, I have managed to bone a number of shad fillets, though the result often looks a bit messy and there seems to be a lot of waste.
However, there is another way to deal with the bones. Long, slow cooking softens the smaller bones to the point that they can be eaten along with the meat, like the bones in canned salmon or sardines. And I do mean long cooking: most recipes specify four to six hours at the lowest possible oven setting.
This technique has been around for a long time, and many cookbook writers have dismissed it with a sneer. "Overcooked and tasteless" (James Beard) and "so dry that it sticks in your throat" (Mark Bittman) are typical comments on the results, but I disagree. If you like the flavor and texture of canned sardines, try to imagine an enormous one, to be eaten warm from the oven. If this picture doesn't appeal to you, then skip it.
Six-Hour Baked Shad with Onions and Bacon
serves 5 to 6
1 whole shad, about 3 pounds
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme or marjoram
4 slices bacon
Have the fish cleaned and scaled. The head and tail may be removed if necessary to fit your roasting pan. At home, cut open and remove the strip of red flesh lying inside the cavity along the backbone. Rinse the fish thoroughly inside and out until no traces of blood remain.
Preheat oven to the lowest setting it will hold; 200 to 225 degrees is ideal. Lay out a large sheet of aluminum foil shiny side up and oil the middle of the sheet lightly. Season the fish inside and out with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Spread half the onions in the middle of the foil, lay the fish on top, and stuff the cavity with the remaining onions and herbs. Lay the bacon strips on top of the fish and seal the foil tightly around the fish.
Place the fish in a roasting pan and bake 5 to 6 hours. Transfer the wrapped fish to a deep platter and slit open one side of the foil (it will release a lot of juices). Carefully slide out the fish and discard the foil. To serve, use a fork and spoon to pull pieces of meat away from the backbone and ribs; the remaining bones are edible. Spoon the juices over each portion. Serve with steamed new potatoes or French fries.
Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.