Diner Diary April 11, 1992
I believe that this recipe came from the New York Times. Bonnie and I love shad and shad roe and this recipe is a good one to highlight those superb foodstuffs. We especially love shad when it’s prepared with a minimum of fuss – flour dredged and pan fried with a little lemon juice. Cook the roe with bacon. There are a many good recipes for shad, some simple, some complex, all that I’ve tasted good – there ain’t no hiding the taste of this fish. The New York Times recipe, as I’ve written, took a while to prepare, but it was well worth the effort.
The shad presents itself honestly and without guile. While many think it uninteresting or unattractive in the way that it looks, I find its large scales to be quite beautiful; the color of burnished nickel with an edge of iridescent blue. It has bones, it tastes like an oily fish and it smells like fish. Givens and attributes that many folks don’t like – good, more for me. This shad, Alosa Sapidissima (its quite beautiful species name), the star of John McPhee’s wonderful, ‘The Founding Fish’, migrates back up the rivers to spawn in the springtime. It can be full of annoying bones, but if it’s ‘done’ right, it isn’t. The flesh is full of flavor, but it is oily and you want to counter that, to greater or lesser degrees, with an acid flavor: the lemon juice, tomatoes or even a splash of vinaigrette. It is heaven on earth when it’s smoked. The roe is nutty with burst in the mouth eggs different than caviar, but a sac full of eggs just the same. We used to really enjoy this with a side dish of morels, shallots and fiddlehead ferns, but it’s getting harder to find the ferns. Something about ‘potential’ cancer if it’s not cooked correctly and you eat 15 pounds of it at a sitting, 4 days a week.
Shad has become a ‘ritual food’ for Bonnie and me, a celebration of a particular season and time. It heralds the arrival of spring.
Our town is bordered by the Delaware River. As with many rivers, the Delaware was once so polluted that fish, including the shad, couldn’t survive in its waters. Unbelievably, it has been restored to a virtually pristine condition at our location and the shad have returned.
The rebirth of the river and the attendant return of the shad brought about a festival in our town celebrating the fish and the river in which it swims. The celebration is a nice little street fair complete with a Shad Queen, tours of the town brewery (which used to include a great pig roast until the health department and their ridiculous regulations shut it down), a shad poster auction, demonstrations of historic shad fishing (a net pulled in by a group of men and women – if you stepped back two hundred years the scene would look the same) and of course shad cuisine.
The odd thing is that only one or two of the food vendors have served shad in the past few years. Bonnie and I frequent those vendors. In talking with these vendors the consensus is that people don’t like the fishy taste and don’t want to contend with any bones. Ya’ get what ya’ pay for and what your efforts earn you. So the rest of you go eat tilapia – no taste, no bones, no nothing – just what you deserve. As for me I’ll take the river and its bounty of shad and shad roe.
SHAD AND SHAD ROE DINNER
SHAD FEST POSTERS
I treasure the ritual, my rituals, that come with having guests for dinner. Looking back in the Dinner Diaries for dishes that I may not have used in a while and to find out what I have served these particular guests before; I don’t want to serve the same thing twice.
I do give heed to the weather. I don’t want to serve cold lemon chicken if the temperature is in the 30’s nor do I want to serve lamb shanks or cassoulet if the temps are in the 90’s.
As to the dishes themselves I usually prefer them to complement one another rather than contrast. That’s not to say I don’t want a differential, it’s just that I won’t serve Thai food and Italian on the same menu. Thought is given to the colors, flavors and textures of the food. I want the colors to be a rich palette, not just a single color. Nor, obviously, do I want the flavors to be the same. Texture in that is it chewy or melt-in-your-mouth. Putting together a good menu is art, a practice in composition.
I prefer to fill my palette with seasonal foodstuffs and I am a locavore to the greatest extent possible. It just doesn’t make sense food that’s from a thousand miles away and has no flavor (strawberries in December anyone?) if there are alternatives. I shouldn’t even use the word ‘alternative’. Use what ya got – it will taste better. Shopping for the ingredients for dinner is something that I actually enjoy doing. I’m the guy that’s looking at every lemon and potato, turning them over and over in my hand looking for blemishes, I ask if there’s a fresh box of rhubarb that came in today because what’s in the bins looks like it’s been there for three weeks.
Then it’s time to decide the order of battle. Can anything, whole or in part be made the day before? Can the gorgonzola be crumbled the day before? Got to drain the whole peeled tomatoes the day before (save the tomato water). Make sure that the meats out of the fridge long enough to come to room temperature. Everybody tends to hang in the kitchen as I finish sautéing the polenta until it has a nice golden-brown crust. Oh yea! Made the polenta the day before, un- molded it and left it in the fridge uncovered the day of so that the exterior would dry a little. And on, and on. I’m big on lists.
Perhaps most importantly for me is that I want to serve my guests something that they haven’t had before; whether it’s the celery root soup, the duck breast with corn relish or the braised lamb shanks. I treasure my guests excitement and surprise as the dishes are placed before them.
This was a good menu, cooked perfectly and with dinner guests that are two of our closest friends – The perfect combo. The weather was cooler than normal for this time of year so the lamb shanks were appropriate and, yes, the lamb shanks were from Ely’s. The medjool dates – they weren’t from Ely’s.
How Do You Dress A Pheasant? Depends On The Weather
I feel very fortunate living in a rural area of New Jersey. For all of you people out there that think of New Jersey as highways and cities keep thinking that. I like rural areas because I am, at the very core of my being, a hermit. My few friends know this and call me a hermit. My dream when Bonnie and I were looking for our house (I know, you’re saying, “if he’s such a hermit what’s he doing married to someone as wonderful as Bonnie is?” Easy, I love her.) was that I’d find a house where when you walked up the driveway to get the morning paper, and you saw your neighbor getting his paper, you were too far away from each other to even shout ‘good morning’, you just waved at each other. Well, I achieved that dream – except now I want 200 acres so that I don’t even see my neighbor. We have what Bonnie and I term ‘Disney Land’ scenes in the property around the house continuously. At any single moment in the spring and summer we’re often looking at several bluebirds (which I want to teach to weave a wildflower necklace for Bonnie a la Snow White – or was it Cinderella?), hummingbirds, fawns and red fox kits.
One of the benefits of living in a rural area is that we have several pheasant farms near us. These pheasant farms raise pheasants to supply to game preserves. Hey! You PETA people (we often call you PETAphiles – nuts afflicted with PETAphilia)! Don’t feel sorry for the pheasants. We have them on our property and have found them, along with mourning doves, to be among the most stupid birds on the planet. They will run into the side of your car, they will not move from the road as you drive towards them, they will sit there as our local barn cats walk directly towards them, the pheasant smiling in greeting. I suspect that pheasant’s brains are at square one on the evolutionary pathway. I really enjoy eating a properly cooked pheasant – gotta do it right, they have very little fat, so it’s way too easy to end up with a dry, tough and inedible bird. Since I don’t hunt, I figured that the easiest way to satisfy my craving for a good pheasant would be to call up one of the pheasant farms and see if I could buy some from them. I did call, they said come on down! Yippee! Fresh pheasant for dinner tonight.
By the way, these pheasant farms are not buildings. They are acres of land covered with netting on the sides and the ‘ceiling’ about 10 or 12 feet high. So the birds are free range and get to fly around.
I hop in the car, drive up to the office at the farm and announce myself as ready to take home the pheasants. The proprietor says, “Just wait here and I’ll get your birds for you”, and with that walks down a lane. He had walked a ways down the lane far enough so that when I saw him returning I wasn’t sure what he was carrying – they seemed to be moving. Moving? What the hell is a dead pheasant doing moving? Those birds couldn’t be moving unless they were alive and since I’ve never actually killed my meal to eat it that can’t be possible (actually I have killed my meal to eat it: lobsters, fish, soft shell crabs, other assorted shellfish and a PETAphile that tasted like Piping Plover – ya gotta know the Cape to appreciate that).
Lordy! Lordy! It is in fact live pheasants! What in bloody hell am I going to do with live pheasants? Pheasant wings were flapping, pheasant sounds were being made, pheasant heads were swiveling around and pheasant eyes were searching for an executioner or a savior. My face may have had an expression close to the lady in Hatch’s Seafood when I told her what I was going to do with the lobster bodies. I prefer to think that my face had a bemused and slightly bewildered expression – something like a high fashion model. The bastard proprietor’s face had a smirk and he was holding back laughter. Not doing much to hold that laughter back either.
Me, “Um, Um, Can you dress these for me?”
Him, “Nope – can’t do that.”
Me, “You couldn’t this one time?”
Me, “I never dressed a game bird before.”
Him, “Figured that.”
Me, “So, how do I dress these birds?”
What else could I say? I did want the pheasants and I most certainly did not want to look like a wimp. So the proprietor told me how to dress the birds. For those of you that know how to do this, we know that it’s no big deal. For those of you that don’t know how to do this, I will spare you the details.
Actually, I was planning on telling you, but I ran the instructions past Bonnie and she suggested that I should leave it out. She strongly suggested that I leave it out. When the proprietor finished his instructions he said, “I’ve got some quail too. Want any?” I love quail. In for a penny in for a pound I said, “That would be great, I’ll take six.” They’re small, you know.
The birds went into boxes, not altogether willingly, and then into the back of the car and home. I realize that there is a wide spectrum of ‘sensibilities’ out there so I shall be brief and a bit vague in regards to the events that followed when the birds and I got home.
I GOT MY TRUSTY MEAT CLEAVER
WENT TO THE FIREWOOD SPLITTING STUMP
AND THE DEED WAS DONE
I was thrilled! Four nicely dressed pheasants and six quail rested in the fridge (I didn’t have a good place to hang them to ‘ripen’ or I would have) awaiting the efforts of my culinary skills. I couldn’t wait to tell Bonnie, I was so proud of my newly learned skills. She had known that I was picking the pheasants up but obviously had no idea as to the lengths that I would go to in that regard. I called her at her office, “Honey, I got 4 pheasants and 6 quail!” And then I told her ‘the rest of the story’. There was a really LONG silence and then she said, “You did what!?!?!?” So I told her again. Another long silence and then, “I’m not eating any of them.” What? I had done a lot of feather plucking that day and I could not believe that she would spurn the fruits of my efforts. To this day I’m still a little mystified as to her refusal to eat the birds (which were very tasty). I guess that she just never figured me for the savage that I really am.