Connecticut's ultimate snowbird, the American shad, has returned early this year, drawn by the irresistible urge to mate and warmer water temperatures.
Just in time for dinner. Whether we have childhood memories of an annual spring ritual or acquired taste for the distinctive seasonal delicacy, Dawn Root of Old Lyme Seafood, a family owned shoreline and Connecticut River shad institution for 46 years, continues to make it easy for people to enjoy the bony fish and roe.
"We're going on week five of having shad in the store, which is a first in a long time," says Root.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Root wielded a wickedly sharp knife in the Lyme Art Association galleries, deftly demonstrating how to remove the notorious bones while onlookers at the 12th annual Taste of the Lymes nibbled on local foods and took in the art. The annual fundraiser supports the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce grant and scholarship program.
"My father used to serve every restaurant on the shoreline to Middletown; he'd have four boats fishing, plus his own," said Root, who learned the art of shad deboning from her mother, Geri. Root continued the business in 2001 after her father, Harry, passed away. She's been boning the fish since she was 12 years old, and remembers how a crew of five women was kept busy preparing the fish for market.
While Root quickly turned sides of shad into boneless filets, Diane Stevens, who also works in the shop, tested the audience's knowledge of shad. She rewarded correct answers with freshly cut filets and a pair of shad roe, or sacks of fish eggs.
Shad are the largest member of the herring family, anadromous fish that start out in fresh water, but live most of their lives in the salt water, returning back to fresh water only as adults to mate. Scientists think they are guided back by memory and a sense of smell. Returning adult fish weigh about three to six pounds, the females being larger than the males, or bucks, and are about four to six years old, according to the ConneCT Kids website, a state government program.
The males return first, followed by the females. Shad quit eating once they hit the fresh water, intent on getting upstream. Half of the fish don't survive the swim, after either using up their energy reserves or ending up on the dinner table. But females can live to be 10 years old and some make the trip up to four times. One female shad can produce 250,000 eggs between May and July; only 30 percent of the offspring make it back out to sea to continue the cycle, though.
Each adult fish has about 1,300 bones, Stevens pointed out, adding that it takes about 22 to 25 cuts, or slices, to remove all of the bones in each one-half fish filet. A five-pound fish, for Root, produces two filets, one from each side of the fish, weighing about one-half to three-quarters of a pound.
Brittany Root, the latest generation to join the family business, recommended recipes for the shad filets and roe and enticed the crowd with samples of the smoked fish, which tasted slightly sweet and satisfying, and a tasty spread of it, made with cream cheese and a bit of mayonnaise. The shop smokes its shad over hickory and sugar maple.
"It tastes like a mild bluefish," Dawn said, between slices.
It's not as popular as when she was growing up, when restaurants and home cooks regularly served it up as an affordable spring menu item and more shoreline and river communities held traditional shad bakes. But she is seeing some signs of younger clientele trying it, especially with different ingredients.
These days Old Lyme Seafood gets its shad from veteran commercial fisherman Gary Rutty, who fishes the same tides that Root's father used to fish, between the two bridges in Old Saybrook.
Although the Connecticut season officially started April 1 and runs to mid-June, the fish return when the river water temperatures are above 40 degrees. The mating activity peaks when fresh water temperatures reach 67 degrees.
"We don't know," Root said. "The season may end as fast as it started."
Shad Roe with Capers & Balsamic Vinegar
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 pair shad roe
½ cup red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a small, non-stick skillet over high heat until almost smoking. Add the olive oil and a minute later add the roe. Sear over high heat for 2 minutes per side and season with salt and pepper. Remove roe to an oven safe pan; put pan in oven.
Add red wine to skillet and reduce to about 2 tablespoons. Stir to get up all the browned bits. Lower heat to low heat and stir in the butter. Stir and cook until the sauce is smooth. Add capers and vinegar; cook to blend the flavors, about 1 minute. Pour sauce over roe and serve immediately.
To parboil roe:
Cover the roe with boiling water. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, cover with cold water, let stand for 5 minutes. Drain.
1 pound shad filets, boneless
Juice of ½ lemon
1 pound of spinach
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
Place fish on a plate and squeeze the lemon juice over top and leave to marinate. Melt butter in a skillet and add shallots. When shallots have softened add spinach and cook until barely wilted. Season with salt and pepper and purée in a blender. Preheat broiler. Take a piece of foil and place fish skin side down to 1 side of foil, so you can later turn the fish over to the other side.
Place the spinach purée inside the fish and close the flaps over it. Flip the fish over, so it's now skin-side up and drizzle with oil. Broil until the skin is crisp, about 5 minutes. Then turn the fish over and broil until fish is cooked through, about another 4 to 5 minutes, and serve.