The ice is still safe–it was twenty-two inches at Long Pond yesterday–but I hear a suspicious dripping sound coming from the trees behind the house. This time of change is when many fish are laden with eggs, or roe. Yellow perch roe sacs can be up to five inches in length, their smaller cousins, white perch, have a roe sac maybe the size of my pinkie finger. Their flavor is light, with just a hint of fish, and they are only available during this brief season.
Rarity does not change the flavor, but it does add to pleasure of dining on these savory morsels. Deer meat, blueberries, mushrooms and many other harvested foods can be frozen or dried and eaten throughout the year. I have frozen roe, but the delicate, gentle fish flavor is quickly lost. It is a delicacy that is best enjoyed right now.
Many people think of caviar when they think of fish eggs, but that is made from sturgeon eggs, and cured in salt. Cod roe is commonplace in Iceland and Scandinavia and is now widely available at the chain Ikea, but still lacks the delicacy of our Maine perch eggs. The roe from the American Shad is the closest. Shad roe is sought after, and connoisseurs have been known to pay exorbitant prices to have it flown to their kitchens. I grew up eating shad and shad roe as one of our rites of spring, and so was delighted to discover that we have a similar treat here in Maine.
What is not so delightful is that the yellow perch are an invasive species. They were introduced locally perhaps ten years ago and, as invasive species tend to do, are reducing the native fish population. I wish the yellow perch were not in the ponds we find them in, but will not turn down their roe for political reasons.
You need to be or know a fisherman to get roe this time of year. Preferably, a fisherman who can also clean the roe sack out intact, as a punctured roe is a mess to cook. But a mess of roe is a wonderful thing. This is confusing, and can be blamed on our dynamic English language. The phrase “a mess of” is something I learned from my mother-in-law, and thought it was one of her colorful Maineisms, like sprill (fir needles) and oughts (compost), but a mess of goes as far back as the Old French, mes, a portion of food, and perhaps is even older. Mess used to mean a group, or many things, but with time it shifted to mean a bunch of things that are untidy and sloppy, and then simply untidy. My husband claims his Maine accent is the closest dialect to the King’s English America has. Hearing mess used with its original meaning when describing a bunch of fish, or fiddleheads, I wonder if he may be right.
Many fisherman toss out the roe, or feed the entire yellow perch to the eagles that generally hang out where ice fisherman fish. They are looked at as trash food, just as mussels were not so many years ago. When I moved to Maine, mussels were not sold in the seafood markets, and were not on the menu at any restaurant. I am not predicting yellow and white perch roe will become restaurant fare. They are not so easy to get, nor are they as plentiful as mussels, which are now even farm-raised, but perhaps fisherman will bring them home to enjoy with the rest of their catch.
Whether they become popular or not, I will to continue eat the roe, each bite a succulent moment of epiphany. I will also continue to thank my fisherman who brings them, beautifully cleaned and glistening, to our kitchen. “Aren’t they complicated to clean?” I ask.
“Slit the belly, give a push with your finger, and out they pop,” was the reply.
There are not many things about Maine winter’s that are that easy.
To cook roe
White perch roe
White perch roe is about the size of my pinky finger, pale whitish grey, and very finely grained. The sac covering is very delicate, and needs to be handled with care. A tiny pinprick or two with a clean needle will allow pressure to escape as it heats, if you don’t do this, they might pop open instead of browning. Give them a gentle rinse, and slide the roes (you will need quite a few) into a cast iron pan with a shimmer of olive oil. After the heat firms them and they have hints of golden brown, add white wine, turn gently and very softly let them cook. Serve just like that or cool them, mince some garlic, add yogurt or mayonnaise and a hint of oyster sauce. Spread on toast.
Yellow perch are a bit sturdier, quite a bit thicker, and as thick as a sausage. They are a lovely golden color, and can be cooked just like the white perch. They have many more eggs in the case, and are closer to the shad’s roe. Instead of olive oil, use ghee or butter. Three or four can make a meal, with a salad.