Weird Crap I Cook: Shad Roe & Veal Brains

Last weekend we headed down to Naples to visit Mommy Ryan and get away from the cold weather in Boston.  If you’ve briefly visited Naples before, you might not think highly of the food scene there; lots of small strip mall restaurants or overpriced large restaurants downtown.  But, after a few years of visits to Naples I can confidently say it is one of my favorite places to eat despite then having to go shirtless at the beach and pool.  The food is diverse, high quality, and spans regional cuisine from across the country and other cultures as well.  Makes sense considering people move there from pretty much everywhere and want their favorite comfort foods nearby.

While visiting I sampled some incredible pastrami from Pastrami Dan’s (a retired New Yorker), fried sheep’s milk cheese with chicken livers and tender octopus from Pelagos, upscale Mexican from Masa, and traditional seafood at Kelly’s.  The bakeries and raw materials to cook at home are equally as diverse and awse.  A few examples:

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of Michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Those strip malls house small restaurants that make items like pissaladiere from Paris Bakery.  That's a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you've ever had

Paris Bakery lives in one of those anonymous strip malls and serves a mean pissaladiere.  That’s a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions that have been cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you’ve ever had

Wagyu ribeye from Jimmy P's butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn's seafood market

Wagyu rib steak from Jimmy P’s butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn’s seafood market.  I took this after already coating the tuna steak with chili oil for the grill if you’re wondering what that bizarre orange stuff is

Jimmy P’s and Wynn’s have supplied the ingredients for previous blog posts including lamb kidneys and all posts involving head-on shrimp.  So, in addition to the two delicious pieces of meat shown above, I also tapped them for two odd items I’d never sampled before: veal brains and shad roe.

Veal brains are pretty self explanatory, but shad roe is the roe sack from a river herring that is usually only harvested for a brief period every year.  I learned all of that just now from Wikipedia, but I had long been interested in shad roe since Mooman has raved about it for years.  I was very excited when I saw it at Wynn’s, even though it is funky looking stuff.

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

Funky looking stuff, and apparently this wasn’t even half as bad as it looks when it is very fresh.  What’s in the container represents the two roe sacks from one fish, connected by a membrane in the center.  At this point I couldn’t understand what all the fuss (primarily from Mooman) was about; it looked just like any other roe sack from a fish.  And those other roe sacks tend to cook up mealy, flavorless, and insanely dry.

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason's fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason’s fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison since that just tasted like salty sand

While a few pats of butter melted in a sautee pan, I separated the roe sacks from the center membrane and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper.  Once the butter started to brown slightly, I added the shad roe to the pan.

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn't promising food for anyone but me

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn’t promising food for anyone but me

After a few minutes of saute time, the roe sacks appeared to be firming up a bit so I flipped them and squeezed a little lemon juice into the pan as well.

Color and everything was looking solid, but the shape and visible texture makes this a not easy entry point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I've never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later)

Color was looking solid, but the shape and visually concerning texture makes this not an easy entry-point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I’ve never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later) and I would still excitedly eat it in that scenario

After a few more minutes, I divided each roe sack in half and moved them to pieces of toasted baguette.  The remaining butter stayed over medium heat with an additional splash of white wine and a squeeze of additional lemon juice.  After a couple minutes of reducing the sauce while stirring constantly, I poured a few spoonfuls over each of the pieces of shad roe and served.

I could not come up with a vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explainst the jagged edges

I could not come up with a creative vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explains the jagged edges

Definitely the best fresh roe I’ve ever tasted since it didn’t have any of the negatives that you usually get with fish roe; not fishy, no mealiness, and the eggs still had a little pop to them.  The flavor was very mild and had a little clam-like flavor.  The brown butter, wine, and lemon sauce was a nice complement without overpowering the flavor of the roe.  The bread was probably a little unnecessary, but it did a good job of absorbing the sauce and minimized the need for utensils.  As usual with the odd stuff, Janet enjoyed it.

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person since she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she is in her PJs, I'm guessing a significant amount joined her in the crib that night

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person because she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she was in her PJs, I’m guessing a significant amount of eggs joined her in the crib that night

Now on to the veal brains.  The moment you’ve been waiting for!

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one.  Also, I love the comical brevity of meat labeling.  I feel like organ meat labels should hem and haw like someone trying to hide what the meat truly is until you sample it

I’ve had some ups (goat) and downs (sheep) with brains over the past few years, but I thought veal would be a solid choice since I assumed the flavor would be mild.  The brains went into a cold water bath for about 6 hours, changing the water regularly.

Once the water remained relatively clear after 30 minutes, I removed the brains to dry them and lay out on the cutting board.  You knew this foto was coming at some point and it ends up being pretty brutal.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let's get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let’s get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately

The brains were soft and there was a fair amount of brain stem pieces.  Good god this sucks to write about.  Let’s fast forward to when I was done cutting into individual pieces and tossing in flour seasoned heavily with salt and pepper.

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

I coated the pieces in flour and fried in two batches.  While I was in the process of trimming and coating, I had a pan of vegetable oil and some bacon fat heating on the stovetop.  Once a small piece of bread browned within 30 seconds when dropped in the oil, I added the brain pieces to the oil.

I was hiding from the oil as usual at this point.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else's home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

I was hiding from the oil at any time that I wasn’t taking pictures.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else’s home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

After 3-4 minutes I flipped each piece then cooked for a few more minutes before transferring to paper towels to drain off any excess oil.

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

The next batch headed (wokka wokka) into the oil and went through the same flipping and draining process.  Originally I had hoped to drizzle a little butter, lemon, and caper sauce but I forgot about it while it was on the stove and that didn’t really work out for me.  So. instead, I squeezed a little lemon over the pieces and topped with chopped parsley and shredded parm.

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when about 30 whole fried sardines were served this way

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when I made it through a gigantic plate of whole fried sardines served this way

I was relatively confident that these would be tasty but I was surprised they turned out as well as they did.  The coating was salty and had some smoky pork flavor from the bacon grease.  The texture and flavor of the brains was almost identical to veal sweetbreads, with a crunchy fried exterior.  The meat was soft and creamy, which might sound off-putting but it is why it pairs so well with a crunchy coating.  The flavor was very mild and only slightly beef-like, which also makes it very difficult to describe.  Just try sweetbreads next time you see them on a menu and you’ll get what I am talking about.

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren't that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren’t that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

I was most impressed with how much of that pile of fried food we went through.  Janet had been in bed for a few hours so she was of no help, but between me, Tim, and Mommy Ryan we made it through all but a couple of these.  Kristi pretty much sat out all adventurous foods in this meal.

I need to take a few weeks off from WCIC after this one.  This one was odd even by my standards.

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