March – still winter, and it often feels like it here on Delmarva. Cold and windy, gray, maybe even a last snowstorm and a short freeze to come.Yet, there are also those warm days announcing the approach of spring – the sun is rising and setting a little farther to the nartherd (north) every day. The red-winged blackbird is singing from on high, the marsh is starting to smell and just about the time the corned beef and cabbage gets done and the green beers poured, the first fish hawk (osprey) shows up and and much is right with the world again.
Meanwhile, on those days you’re pulling on your wool socks and overcoat, know that in the warming coastal waters there’s a silent, yet equally strong and reliable harbinger of warmer days ahead. A harbinger promising many things including swarming gnats and skeeters, sunburns and the fragrances of fresh steamed hardcrabs and Thrashers fries. The American shad is entering the Delaware Bay from the Atlantic Ocean starting it’s annual spawning run up into the freshwater of the Delaware River. By sometime in April they’ll be all the way up to Lambertville NJ and beyond, lay their eggs and return to the ocean.
Although I grew up on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 60’s and 70’s in a family that worked the Chesapeake and knew how to gather about anything that lived in the water or marsh, I had little appreciation for shad. By the time I came along the big shad runs up the Chesapeake had dwindled, my grandfather was finished pound netting and my dad didn’t care for them – too boney and the roes are too big he’d always say. On the other hand, we did often eat the roe of river herring, smaller, closely related fish in the same family as shad that come in from the ocean to spawn at about the same time. Their roes were proportionally smaller and could be fried nice and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – kinda like scrapple. And, so it went. Shad were something of a myth to me.
In 1982 I got my first job fresh out of college with a degree in biology from, as then, Salisbury State College. I was teaching environmental education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and often one of the subjects on our field trips was telling the story of the huge shad runs that early American settlers living along the bay and rivers awaited to signal the end of the brutal winter, and, depended upon to provide a staple source of food. At that point, the first bite of a shad had yet to cross my lips.
Finally, a couple of years later I bought one at a local fish market. Without the aid of YouTube, I had no idea how to get the bones out, and didn’t know anyone to show me. I heard that a pan-dressed (head, tail, scales, guts removed) shad could be seasoned to taste (generally salt and pepper) wrapped in foil, placed in the oven on the rack and baked all day at about 200-225, during which time the bones would soften such that they could be eaten. After about 4 hours a wonderful aroma began to fill the kitchen. Everything was going well and we went out for awhile. Upon our return a couple of hours later the juices had overflowed the foil wrap down into the bottom of the oven and the kitchen had taken on a different type of aroma. Anyway, to make an already long story shorter, the flavor of the fish was very good, in my opinion, and my career as a shad chef in my wife’s kitchen was declared over. And then, over 30 years went by.
With all that, there’s just something unexplainable about how the rich lore of shad has gotten ahold of me. Last year, I got my nerve up to try again and figured my wife might even let one in the kitchen. So, I got my son who works the water on Delaware Bay to bring me one. With the help of an excellent video on YouTube, I successfully got it boned out, my friends liked my post about it on Facebook, my wife congratulated me and even let me bake it in the oven. Back at the helm again, I cooked some bacon to lay across both the roe, which I slowly sauteed in a covered skillet on the stove top, and the boned filet in the oven, which I baked for about 10 minutes at 350. Other than the bacon, I just put salt and pepper on both. Sure was good and my wife was glad for me to have it all to myself.
This year I’ve gone at it big and I’m about shadded out now. When they started running I got three, figuring that by the time I got all of them done my boning technique would be improved and faster. So on the first Sunday afternoon this month, I put up a little post on FB with my intentions and went back to the same YouTube video I used last year figuring it’d be a snap. Wrong headed thinking! That first Sunday I don’t think the temperature rose above freezing. No smart person would be fooling with a slippery fish, water and a sharp knife outdoors trying to do the fish cleaning equivalent of plastic surgery. Thus I was back in the kitchen with three shad to clean (I did have sense enough to get them scaled when I bought them.) Fortunately, my wife was out of town for the weekend and not home until Tuesday or I might be done with shad for good.
Far enough into the first fish to know that this wasn’t going to go as figured my messenger pinged and it was our esteemed fishing reporter Rich King inquiring as to whether I’d be interested in doing a little story on shad. I replied, “maybe, I’m in the middle of cleaning the first one and it’s not going too good. Can I let you know?” “Sure”.
After a while, and feeling fairly humbled I finally got them done. They weren’t masterpieces of fish cleaning art like the job done by Cap’n Vince Russo in his excellent shad cleaning video, but, it was a good enough job for Plan B – fishcakes!
Years ago, my Dad, Brice Tyler who was also a waterman and well-known waterfowl carver, taught me to use a mashed potatoes matrix to make fishcakes. Here’s what I did with what probably amounted to about 3 pounds of meat that wasn’t suitable for consumption as baked boned shad.
1) bake the mostly boned pieces until done.
2) pick the meat apart and remove the remaining bones (there were some but I did a better job than I thought during cleaning)
3) cook some bacon (chop when done)
4) chop and caramelize a big onion
5) cook some potatoes until soft (peel if you prefer)
6) make mashed potatoes (add butter, cream – whatever you like)
7) to the mashed potatoes, add the picked fish, onion and bacon
8) season to taste using whatever seasonings you like
9) make into patties using a 1/4 cup measure (I found that in frying larger patties fell apart more easily, they can also be broiled).
10) coat the patty with a breading of your choice so it doesn’t stick.
11) this process with this amount of fish yielded 30 fishcakes. I fried a few in the skillet for dinner, wrapped the rest individually in wax paper and froze them.
Good ole fashioned Eastern Shore cooking. This recipe can be used with any type of fish. If you have a large amount of fish meat that doesn’t freeze well like bluefish, croaker, or large striper, and don’t mind doing some kitchen work, cooking it and making it into cakes like this before freezing will make it last longer and stretch it farther. In the meantime the equinox has passed and spring is about to run us over. Go, get out there and get a line in the water somewhere around this, as Scorchy Tawes would have said, Delmarvelous Land.