James Beard described baked shad as ‘pure eating joy,’ so get cooking

  • Salad of Shad with Orzo and Green Beans STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shad fries in a pan STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shad with Spiced Lentil and Peas, served with fiddleheads and carrots. Along the Connecticut River, fiddleheads poke up on the banks just as the shad are arriving, and they are its traditional local partner. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shad with Spiced Lentil Dhall and Peas, served with fiddleheads and carrots. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 5/10/2019 3:23:31 PM
Modified: 5/10/2019 3:23:15 PM

If you check out fish counters at this time of year you may spot shad fillets tucked in among the usual cod and haddock. It’s not as white as they are, so it possibly looks less attractive. But its Latin descriptor sapidissima tells a different story. It means “most delicious,” and there’s always been agreement on this.

Writing about the foods in East Coast markets in the nineteenth century, Thomas De Voe called shad “a general favorite ... its flesh is considered the best, sweetest, the most delicate.”

Twentieth-century food writer James Beard described baked shad as “pure eating joy,” and recently Barton Seaver, author of “American Seafood,” praised it as “extremely delicious with a distinct sweet flavor.” All emphasize that the roes are special. “One of North America’s truly great delicacies,” writes Boston restaurateur Jasper White.

Shad is the largest member of the herring family. They are born in rivers but swim into the Atlantic to live the high life for four or five years before returning to their native streams to spawn. The water must be about 55 degrees before they will embark on their mating mission, so they enter southern rivers sooner than northern ones, arriving in Florida in January but not making it to New England until April and May.

By this time they are well-fed and tasty, so generations of Americans have eagerly awaited their arrival. Locally, Native Americans used to move down to the banks of the Connecticut in spring to feast on the huge schools of fish swimming north. European settlers shared their taste. De Voe described Connecticut shad as “the best,” and a prosperous commercial fishery thrived on the river.

Though dams and pollution reduced the catch during the industrial era, many communities on the Connecticut held annual shad festivals. The tradition continues today in Holyoke, where Holyoke Gas and Electric runs annual shad-fishing derbies. This year’s derby dates are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 11, 12, 18, and 19.

Holyoke is also the place to watch the shad hastening up the river at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway on Gatehouse Road in Holyoke. Here two lifts carry shad and other migratory fish over the dam. The facility is open Wednesdays through Sundays (and also Memorial Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until June 16. (For more information call 536-9460). After Holyoke, the fish swim up to Turner’s Falls, where a fish ladder at the dam speeds them on their way. It, too, is open from mid-May to Mid-June from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Both shad-viewings are free, fascinating and fun for kids.

When shad appear on the fish counter they are boned. That’s wonderful because while authorities agree that shad is delicious, they are equally unanimous in deploring its bones. A Native American legend explains shad descend from a discontented prickly porcupine who asked the Great Spirit to transform it into something else. The Spirit promptly turned him inside out and threw him in the water, where he became a bony shad.

To deal with these bones, old recipes often advised long baking, but this destroys texture and flavor. Today’s shad fillets are best cooked by panfrying or baking until the flesh is opaque — about 10 minutes for a 1-inch thick piece of fish.

Along the Connecticut River, fiddleheads poke up on the banks just as the shad are arriving, and they are its traditional local partner. Greens also partner shad in Europe. A Portuguese recipe calls for cooking it in a curved roof tile lined with cabbage leaves. French cooks pair it with a tart sorrel sauce that complements its richness.

Since shad is a seasonal delicacy, you won’t always be able to find it, so each recipe suggests other fish that you can substitute.


A British way of cooking herring in rolled oats is here adapted to the herring’s larger relative and teamed with sorrel sauce, which is a classic French accompaniment to shad. Like fiddleheads, which are a good side with this dish, sorrel is a perennial that is one of the first crops to return to the garden. Look for it also in the wild and in farmers’ markets. (Mackerel and bluefish can also be cooked in oats. Sorrel sauce is good with them and also salmon.)


For the sorrel sauce

About 2 cups washed sorrel leaves, packed but not squashed

1 tablespoon butter

¾ cup heavy cream

Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and freshly ground nutmeg to taste

For the shad

4 shad fillets, each about 5 ounces

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons milk

About half cup rolled oats

2-3 tablespoons canola or other mild oil


You can make the sauce first, set it aside then reheat it, or if you like to multitask, make it while the fish is cooking. It’s quick and easy.

Pile the sorrel leaves on top of one another discarding any tough stems and ribs. Cut through the pile so you make them into ribbons. Melt the butter in a stainless steel or enameled saucepan over moderate heat. Stir in the sorrel. It will quickly collapse to almost nothing. Stir in the cream plus 1-2 tablespoons water. Bring to simmering point and season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg to taste. Set aside on the back of the stove while you cook the fish.

Season the shad with salt and pepper. Brush the top surface with milk. Put the oats on a plate or board and press the milky side of the fish in them. Heat the oil in frying pan large enough to take the fish in a single layer. Put the fish in oat side down and cook over moderate heat for 2-3 minutes or until the oats have turned an appetizing golden brown. Flip the fish over and cook for another 4-5 minutes until opaque all the way through.

To serve, reheat the sauce. Spread portions on 4 dinner plates and settle the shad on top. Serve with potatoes and a green vegetable: the traditional fiddleheads would be perfect.


When shad swim inland they are abundant, but for most of the year they are out at sea so they’re unobtainable. To preserve some of the plenty, Native American smoked the fish. The simple method of smoking described below does not preserve the fish but it gives it a terrific flavor. It’s also excellent for salmon and worth trying for bluefish. The basic equipment is a deep lidded pan — such as a wok or sauté pan — heavy-duty foil, and a rack or steamer basket that will fit the pan holding the fish pieces in a single layer.

3-4 fillets of shad, each about 4-5 ounces, or if you have large pan and rack, a piece of shad weighing between 1 and 1 ½ pounds

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup loose-leaf tea such as English breakfast (Lapsang Souchong is smoked tea and would also be good here)

¼ cup brown or white sugar

¼ cup uncooked white rice

1 tablespoon oil for greasing

Take the shad from the fridge; rinse and wipe, then season with sea salt and back pepper. Let it sit on the counter so it comes up to room temperature while you prepare the pan.

Thoroughly mix the tea, sugar, and rice. Line your pan — a deep sauté pan or wok or similar — with a double layer of heavy-duty foil. Pile the tea-sugar-rice mixture in the center and spread it flat, though still keeping it in the center. Grease your rack or steamer basket with the oil. Place the shad in it in a single layer. Put the lid on the pan leaving just a small gap. Place on a moderate burner on top of the stove. When you see a wisp of smoke floating out of the gap, but the lid on tightly. (If necessary, cover with a sheet of foil pressed tightly on top to prevent more smoke from escaping.) Leave the shad over a low to moderate burner for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave for another 5 minutes. If you have used one large piece of shad, remove it to a cutting board and slice. If you have separate pieces transfer them to warmed plates. Good with rice or sweet potatoes with a green vegetable such as broccoli, bok choy or asparagus,


The term dhall covers the many varieties of split lentils used to make soupy accompaniments to rice in India. In this recipe, the spiced dhall polka-dotted with vivid peas sets off the flavorful shad. You could use bluefish, mackerel or salmon instead of shad here.

For the dhall and peas

⅓cup split red lentils

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered

About 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapeno or other chili

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon powdered cardamom

1 teaspoon powdered cumin

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric

½ teaspoon powdered cinnamon

1 cup fish or vegetable stock or water

4-6 stems cilantro

1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice

Salt to taste

1 cup defrosted frozen peas

For the shad

1-2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

About 2 tablespoons flour

4 shad fillets, each about 5 ounces

Put the lentils in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by an inch. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until tender and the water almost all absorbed. Add more water and cook a minute or two longer if necessary to tenderize them.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small frying pan, and gently soften the onion, garlic, chili and ginger in it for 4-5 minutes. Move the mixture over to one side of the pan, and add the cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and turmeric to the empty space. Cook for 30 seconds or until the spices turn a shade darker, then stir in the cooked red lentils and stock or water plus the roughly chopped cilantro stems, Simmer covered for about 10-12 minutes or until the lentils have pretty much disintegrated.

Whizz in a food processor or blender or pass through a food mill, then return to the pan over low heat. The viscosity should be that of a medium-thick sauce rather than a paste. Add more water or stock if it’s too thick. Stir in the lime juice and salt to taste. When the dhall is simmering, add the peas and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Set the sauce aside off the heat while you cook the shad.

To cook the shad, dust with the flour. Heat the oil in a large frying pan that will hold the pieces in a single. Cook for 4-5 minutes each side or until opaque all through.

To serve, reheat the red lentil dhall and spoon a portion onto each of 4 warmed plates. Position the fillets on top, and scatter on the torn cilantro leaves. Good with rice or baked potatoes. You could have the traditional fiddleheads with this dish, or asparagus or carrots.


Connoisseurs love shad roe. It’s always sold separately from the fish — often in pairs — and some fish markets sell roe but not shad. It looks like a beige or pinkish sausage. A typical pair weighs 4-8 ounces. They are very filling so you don’t need a lot. Boston chef Jasper White developed the following cooking method, which here has been slightly adapted from his book “Jasper White’s Cooking From New England.” The crucial thing is to make sure the roe is almost submerged in the butter, so choose a pan into which it fits with little room to spare.

2 pairs shad roe

Salt and white pepper

About 8 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 tablespoon chopped capers

Juice of half a lemon

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce or to taste

Roasted baguette for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Handling them gently so not to break the membrane that holds them together, wash the roes. Gently pat dry. In an ovenproof pan that will just hold them melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over low heat. Add the roe. If they are not almost covered, add more butter. Put the pan in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Check after 10 minutes: if the roes have firmed up, they are ready; if still soft cook a minute or longer.

When the roes are ready put them on warmed plates. Return pan to the top of the stove and stir in the parsley, chives, capers, lemon juice, and half a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce. While it is foamy pour onto the roes and serve immediately with the toasted baguette.


Green beans complement the flavor of the fish, and orzo adds substance to this salad. Quantities of each ingredient depend on what you have. You can use other small pasta or even spaghetti squash. Smoked mackerel, smoked trout, salmon and bluefish are good alternatives to shad.

About 1-2 cups cooked shad (smoked or plain), cut in bite-size pieces

About 1-2 cups cold cooked green beans cut in 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives

About ¾ cup cooked orzo or other small pasta, cooked

1-2 lemons

About 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

For garnish: cucumber slices halved cherry tomatoes, black olives

Put the shad, green beans, parsley and chives in a bowl and mix gently together. Add the orzo and mix gently again. With a zester, scrape the zest from one lemon and add to the mixture, along with 2-3 teaspoons freshly squeezed juice and the oil. Season with salt, then toss gently and serve onto plates. Cut the remaining lemon into wedges and add along with cucumber, tomatoes and olives to taste.

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