While my hushpuppies still seem to draw a flattering number of compliments, they are seldom quite as good as they could be. That’s because an ingredient I once considered standard has long since become unavailable—canned fish roe. Little tins labeled “mixed roe” used to inhabit grocery shelves with the sardines and minced clams, but I haven’t seen them for years.
Of course, I could instead stir some leftover or fresh-cooked roe into my hushpuppy batter and I sometimes do, but it’s far from a routine practice. Whenever I am blessed with fresh roe—either by surprise as a byproduct of my fishing or by design at the fish market—I immediately start planning more elaborate uses for it, because I consider fresh roe a delicacy matched only by the catch-of-the-day itself.
But when is roe not roe? The answer, of course—speaking commercially rather than biologically—is when it’s caviar. Even though both roe and caviar come our way by courtesy of pregnant fishes, there is a distinct, if slight, difference between them.
Caviar derives from particular species—most notably sturgeons—that produce large individual eggs. Before marketing, the eggs are stripped from the ovarian membrane, then processed and salted. The resulting caviar, depending on one’s personal point of view, makes either a scrumptious hors d’oeurve suitable for the most refined and prosperous (some would say pompous) tastes, or else a smelly candidate for the chum pot. If you haven’t developed an addiction to caviar yourself, be grateful. The “real stuff”—beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea—already sells for several thousand dollars per pound and the price is pretty sure to soar even higher, because sturgeon stocks are dangerously depleted over there, the fishery is closed and the black marketeers are rubbing their hands in anticipation of great rewards.
You even have to pay hundreds per pound for the most common black caviar produced in America, which is derived from the ungainly looking paddlefish of Midwestern rivers. All the fish that produce caviar-size eggs appear to be freshwater spawners. Among many, they include several other species of sturgeon, plus carp, whitefish, trout and salmon. Of course, gourmets quibble about the inclusion of the lovely pink eggs of salmon, insisting that “pink caviar” is a contradiction in terms. Caviar, they insist, must be black, or at least gray.
Shad roe is both huge and delicious, and perhaps the best-known and best-liked roe in all the land. But while I would never turn down a chance to partake of shad roe, it doesn’t top my list. That honor goes to the golden roe of the lowly mullet, but by only a small margin over the roe of speckled trout, dolphin and a few other varieties of fish that my personal angling sometimes turns up.
Mullet roe is “in season” in the fall, roughly from October through December, and since mullet themselves are at their fattest and most delicious at the same time, the purchase of roe mullet from a Florida fish market delivers double value at not quite double the price. You will, however, pay a premium. Or you could buy the roe only. It comes in two colors, white as well as gold. The white variety comes from male fish and is, technically, not roe, although it wears that name. It’s good, too, but not so richly flavored as the eggs it was meant to fertilize.
Many lovers of mullet roe—those who are competent hurlers of big cast nets—pay for it only in time and effort. Legally speaking, even the markets now depend on cast-netting to supply them with mullet, inasmuch as Floridians voted overwhelmingly to ban gillnets in state waters about a dozen years ago. The ban took effect just in time, for mullet stocks were being dangerously overfished—mostly in order to supply a huge international demand for their roe. That fact provides a hint as to the high esteem in which mullet roe is held.
My roots are in North Florida. That part of the state is located in the Deep South, where the generations-long culinary tradition is to toss just about everything from steak to okra into a frying pan. No surprise, then, that my earliest introductions to the delights of roe—mullet roe in the fall and trout roe in the spring—was to fried roe, which sat on my plate flanked by a crunchily browned mullet fillet on one side and a hushpuppy or two on the other.
Old tastes die hard and so the first presentation below remains my top choice. The procedure is easy, but you must be aware that roe is given to “popping” dangerously when cooked at deep-frying temperatures. Be sure to pierce the membrane with a fork in a couple of places before starting, and to keep the pan covered while roe is cooking; otherwise you could easily be splattered by hot, flying grease.
DEEP FRIED FISH AND ROE
What You’ll Need:
Fillets of mullet or other fish, one per person
Roe, one large or one pair per person
Buttermilk, for soaking
Salt and pepper
Nothing complements fried fish quite as tastily as hushpuppies. And since I have already brought the matter up, nothing makes a hushpuppy turn out quite as tasty as a dollop of loose roe mixed in the batter. Unless you have a secret source of canned roe, you will have to use leftover roe, or else cook some fresh roe by simmering it in water for three or four minutes. In either case, you will need to remove the roe from its membrane, then crumble the eggs with a fork or your fingers. Although the following recipe calls for tomato juice or V-8 juice, which imparts a beautiful rosy color to the pups, you can substitute milk, water or even beer.The same recipe without the roe is still delicious but not heavenly. This serves at least four, and is easily doubled.
HUSHPUPPIES WITH ROE
What You’ll Need:
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
1 small onion, grated or finely chopped
1 egg, slightly beaten
1⁄3 cup loose fish roe
1⁄3 cup tomato or V-8 juice
Beat the egg lightly in a small bowl. Mix in the meal, then the onion and roe. Add the liquid and stir well. The batter should be thick enough to hold shape when dipped. Using a tablespoon, drop half a spoonful of batter at a time into the 350 to 375 degree grease in which you’re frying fish. The puppies will brown quickly, in no more than a minute or so. Turn each one with a spoon to brown the other side, then remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon. The hushpuppies can be cooked first, last or simultaneously with the fish, but do not try to fry them with the roe.
When I manage to keep nostalgia at bay, I now tend to sauté or pan fry my roe, which is not only a healthier method, but is just as quick and easy, and a bit more “uptown.” It is also less perilous, since at lower cooking temperatures the roe does not pop much, if at all. It’s still a safe idea, however, to puncture the membrane in a place or two and to cover the pan. This recipe serves four.
FISH ROE SUPREME
4 large or 4 pairs small roe
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
1 small pat butter
1⁄4 cup white wine
1⁄2 cup broccoli, chopped
1⁄2 cup carrots in small strips
1 medium onion, diced
1⁄2 cup green or red pepper, chopped
1⁄2 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 cups cooked rice
Lightly cover bottom of large, non-stick skillet with olive oil. Turn burner to medium and add butter. When butter starts to brown, add the row, and lightly brown on one side. Turn the roe, add the wine, cover the pan, turn heat down a bit to medium-low and simmer for five minutes—up to seven or eight minutes if roe is very large. Remove roe from pan, add a splash more oil (plus a dab more butter if desired) and stir-fry the vegetables a few minutes to desired state of doneness. Serve the roe on a bed of rice, surrounded by the vegetables.
Roe that has been cooked, no matter by what method, can be crumbled and utilized in a number of delicious ways. Try it with scrambled eggs for a breakfast treat. Or make up this special dip to delight. And perhaps puzzle your guests at a party or dinner. It’s a Greek dish called taramosalata—”tarama” being the Greek word for fish roe.
What You’ll Need:
4 slices white or wheat bread
1⁄2 cup loose fish roe
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Juice of 2 lemons and 1⁄4 tsp. salt
Sprinkle of black pepper
Cut crusts from bread and soak thoroughly in water. Squeeze out the water and then work the bread, roe, onion and garlic together until the mixture is smooth. Add the oil and lemon juice alternately, a bit at a time, pausing to work it in thoroughly after each addition. Add pepper to taste and serve with capers and olives.
Mullet roe has lately become the target of aquaculture efforts in several countries, and is already in limited production. It freezes well, and in the future we may be able to find mullet roe in supermarkets at any time of the year.
And here’s an even more appealing possibility: a plentiful supply of cultured roe could spell the demise of illegal mullet netting in Florida. FS