When I went to my local fishmonger recently, I noticed beside the glistening sets of shad roe a couple of unmarked plastic containers nestled in the crushed ice of the display case. One held white perch roe, I was told, and the other rockfish roe.
After years on the Mid-Atlantic coast, I have learned to love the ephemeral spring pleasure of shad roe. It had never occurred to me, however, that the roe (eggs) of other fish might be cooked and enjoyed as well.
Many recipes call for parboiling the roe before sauteing or baking. I go straight to the frying pan.
It should be cooked slowly over low heat. It's tricky to get it just right, and overcooked roe is not only dry but also taste-free.
Also, the sacs can explode, and fish eggs can fly at the cook and splatter all over the kitchen. However, if you carefully prick the roe's membrane with a needle, there's less possibility of eruption.
The fishmonger said most fish roe gets thrown out because shoppers — like me — are unfamiliar with anything but shad roe. Spring fish, he said, are full of roe but most people say they don't want it.
It's not like it's a new idea. Fish roe has been relished at least since ancient Egypt, and was commonly eaten in the U.S. as recently as the 20th century. In a 1941 press release, for example, the U.S. Department of the Interior encouraged Americans to eat fish roe.
"In all civilized countries," the release reads, "the roes of certain fishes are of recognized high quality and classed among the most valuable of fishery products." At that time, the roe of salmon, sturgeon, whitefish and herring roe were all canned "for the delectation of American gourmets," according to this press release. It was also pushed as a good source of protein — as good as the fish it comes from. However, it also is high in cholesterol.
I began to experiment. I dredged tiny pale yellow sacs filled with delicate white perch eggs in seasoned flour; I dipped the darker roe of the rockfish (known elsewhere as striped bass) in cornmeal and sauteed it in butter. The white perch roe was mild with a creamy texture, while the rockfish roe had a stronger flavor, more like shad roe.
The most adventurous I got was to cook a whole roe shad (the female fish) stuffed with sacs of shad roe and cooked with herbs, lemon and leeks for more than six hours in a slow oven.
Shad is an incredibly bony fish, and the theory is that the tiny bones will almost melt through prolonged exposure to heat, the fishmonger said. "You must be kidding," I replied. That delicate line between perfectly cooked fish and overcooked fish? Turns out you can cross it when cooking a whole shad. Shockingly, both the fish and the roe were moist and flavorful.
About The Author
Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor, a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and regular contributor to the Washington Post food section. She is the author of Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories (St. Martins 2006), and is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore. More information is available at bonnywolf.com.
Some shellfish roe, too, is considered a great delicacy — particularly that of lobsters, scallops and sea urchins. Shellfish roe is often called coral, referring to its orange-red color. These eggs are used in sauces or to make compound butters. Roe curdles if allowed to boil so should be added to hot, not boiling liquids.
Then there's cured roe. Salting sturgeon eggs turns them into caviar, the most luxurious of roe. Bottarga (Italian) or boutargue (French) is sometimes called poor man's caviar. The roe of gray mullet is salted, pressed and dried in the sun. Once, it was sold encased in wax but now is more often vacuum packed. Like other processed roes, bottarga/boutargue is available online. It is thinly sliced and served on toast or in salads, or grated and tossed with pasta. Sicilians put slices on ripe tomatoes.
Taramasalata is the Greek take on what to do with cured fish roe. The fish of choice is gray mullet, but because that is hard to find, most taramasalata is made with carp roe. I found a jar at a Greek market and made a creamy dip using milk-soaked bread, oil, lemon juice and yogurt. It was a beautiful pale pink and mildly addictive.
Both fresh and cured roe are commonly used to make sushi. If a menu lists something with uni, for example, that's sea urchin roe.
Fresh or cured, bright red or pale yellow, fish roe is a culinary rite of spring. So don't balk so fast when you're asked if you want to keep the roe.
Any fresh roe can be cooked this way. The taste will differ according to the fish. White perch roe is in small sacs and has a mild flavor. This recipe is based on one for shad roe from Dori Sanders' Country Cooking (Workman 1995).
In a shallow baking dish, combine the milk, salt and pepper and mix well. In a second shallow baking dish, combine the cornmeal and flour and mix well. Dip the roe first into the milk mixture, then into the cornmeal mixture, coating all sides.
In a heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the roe and cook on one side until golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn the roe and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the roe is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate.
In the same skillet, heat the remaining oil until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for another minute. Add the lemon juice, stir to blend well, and spoon mixture over the roe. Serve immediately.
Any fresh roe can be cooked this way. Rockfish roe has a strong flavor somewhat like shad roe. This recipe is adapted from one in The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (Harper & Row 1961). I prefer the taste of roe cooked in butter rather than oil with the understanding that it ups the fat of an already rich food.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat the butter and add the roe. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook the roe on both sides, turning once carefully, about 10 minutes total cooking time. When the roe is lightly browned and cooked through, transfer to a hot platter.
Add the remaining ingredients to the skillet. Heat, stirring, and pour over the roe. Serve immediately.
It is counterintuitive to cook a small whole fish all day. However, because shad is such a bony fish, it is cooked in a slow oven for more than 6 hours so the bones become soft enough to eat. Oddly, it's very good. Shad are a particularly flavorful fish. Have the fishmonger gut and clean a female (or roe) shad leaving the head and tail intact. The roe will be removed for cleaning the fish but should be returned to the fish cavity for cooking. Many old Maryland cookbooks have recipes for this long-cooking shad baked with roe.
Tear off a piece of aluminum foil large enough to hold whole fish. Inside a roasting pan, place the aluminum foil shiny side up and brush with olive oil.
Thinly slice cleaned leeks and arrange half down middle of foil. Salt and pepper the fish inside and out and place on top of the leeks. Squeeze lemon juice over fish. Be sure the roe is snugly in place and fill the fish cavity with the rest of the leeks and the parsley.
Place the fish in the pre-heated oven. After 3 hours, remove the fish and turn it over. Cook for another 3 hours.
Remove from oven, unwrap the fish and slice into serving pieces.
This is the famous Greek roe dip. If made correctly, it is light and airy and a beautiful pale orange-pink. Many Greek cooks suggest using an electric stand mixer rather than a food processor to get an airy, fluffy taramasalata. This recipe starts in a food processor and moves to mixer. Most recipes call for bread as a thickener, although potatoes are sometimes substituted.
To remove salt from roe, line a mesh sieve with cheesecloth, place the roe in the sieve and run under cold water for 5 minutes. Gently press to get out the water and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add shallots, garlic, lemon juice, mustard, pinch of sugar and half the tarama. Pulse until mixture is smooth. Transfer to the bowl of an electric stand mixer, without washing food processor.
In a large bowl, soak the bread in the milk, turning so all the bread is moistened. Squeeze the bread as dry as possible — there should be about 1 1/2 cups — and place in food processor. Pulse to combine. Add to mixture in mixer.
With the motor running at low-medium speed, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, as you would to make mayonnaise, until the mixture is like that of a fluffy mousse. Add the rest of the tarama and a generous amount of pepper, and fold in the yogurt. Correct the seasoning. If it seems too thick, thin with a little milk.
Taramasalata can be stored in a covered jar for up to a week in the refrigerator.