He also makes a mean shad tempura – with help from his friend and chef Jonathan Nagar.
American shad fish are invasive species in the Columbia River. They came over from the East Coast by train in 1871, and the state of California deliberately planted them in the Sacramento River. The fish quickly spread out across the West Coast and now spawn in such abundance in the Columbia that they’re not likely to be eradicated.
“The numbers are overwhelming,” said Rick Boatner, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife aquatic invasives coordinator. “We have several million come up the Columbia every year. They’re well established, so there’s no way to remove them. They could potentially overwhelm the system.”
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to restore dwindling native shad populations, which have been diminished by dams and over-fishing.
Shad have a similar life cycle to salmon. They spawn in rivers and spend most of their lives bulking up in the ocean. So, for a few weeks in the spring, you can catch the big ones (2 pounders) in the Columbia while they’re on their way to spawning grounds.
You can catch as many as you want because they’re invasive (though you still need a fishing license). Most of the people who fish for shad are port fishermen who use them as bait to catch sturgeon and crab, according to Jimmy Watts of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Not many people catch them for food, in part because they’re super bony. But Barmon has several solutions to that problem.
“Shad is really, really bony,” he said. “But with a pressure cooker, the fine bones soften up and are OK to eat. My family prefers shad to salmon. Not only is the fish tasty, the eggs are pretty amazing. They taste like meatball if you cook them in a little bacon fat.”
Together with Nagar, Barmon has smoked, pickled, pressure-cooked and deep-fried a boatload of bony, unsung shad. They’ve also cured the roe to make bottarga – a salty condiment that can substitute for parmesan cheese on pasta dishes.
Last weekend, they went out with fishing guide Jason Lewis and caught more than 30 shad in a few lovely hours on the Columbia River (they love chartreuse lures, he said). There were lots of boats out catching shad, and Lewis said many were sportsmen fishing for sturgeon bait.
“Sturgeon love shad,” he said. “They’re really stinky and greasy and oily.”
Cleaning and filleting shad is time-consuming, Barmon admitted, and you have to be careful cutting the females if you want to salvage the eggs.
Barmon and Nagar pan-fried the roe from their recent catch and stirred it into rice along with the Asian herb shiso. They served the rice with shad fish fillets prepared two ways: Pressure cooked with soy sauce and ginger and topped with chive flowers, and deep fried in a tempura batter.
The bigger bones in the pressure-cooked fish were easily removed, and the smaller ones were soft and edible.
In the shad tempura, I didn’t taste the bones at all. The fillets were cut into finger-sized pieces, and Nagar said frying cooks the tiny bones to the point where they’re easily palatable.
And the pickled shad? Totally delicious!
Want to try this at home? Barmon recommends two books: “Cook, Gather, Hunt” by Hank Shaw and “Fat of the Land” by Langdon Cook. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a step-by-step guide to filleting shad as well as some recipes for cooking it up.
Here’s the recipe Barmon used to cook his fish in the pressure cooker:
1 cup water
1/2 cup of sake
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger
Add two fillet of shad cut in half and meat side down into pressure cooker
Mix ingredients in a bowl and add to pressure cooker, leaving only tops of fillets exposed
Cook on low for 30 minutes
Garnish with chive flowers (Chive blooms the same time as the shad run)
And here’s the recipe Nagar used for pickling.