By Catharine L. Kaufman (a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink)
& Dina Eliash Robinson
By any name—caviar, fish-eggs or roe—this once abundant but now increasingly rare superfood is valued mostly by connoisseurs for its rich, delicately briny flavor and by health-conscious consumers for its energy-boosting, brain-nourishing and heart-protective qualities.
Roe Power resides in its treasure-trove of nutrients, which include:
• vitamins A, B-6, B-12 and D;
• minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium;
• cell-building protein;
• Omega-3 fatty acids—which promote cardiovascular health, as well as acting as an anti-depressant;
• arginine—a vascular dilator that helps increase blood circulation and is used as both a powerful aphrodisiac and effective hangover remedy;
• acetylcholine—a natural chemical with neurotransmitter characteristics that help to enhance and protect memory;
• low levels of various fats—some essential to health, others not so much; and
• a small percentage of carbohydrates and calories (i.e. an ounce of red caviar has only 55 calories, while even the richer black roe clocks in at a low 70 calories per ounce).
Caviar Caveat — Cost, however, is just one of the downsides that discourages overindulging in caviar, while its relatively high cholesterol and salt contents attach even stricter limits to how much and how often is safe to indulge—
especially for people with high blood pressure or cardiovascular problems. It is also worth remembering that arginine, an otherwise harmless substance found in caviar, has the lesser known tendency to coat the stomach lining and, thereby, increase the body’s tolerance to alcohol—which might explain why caviar is often served with high octane vodka.
Roe vs. Grade — Caviar is rated from Grade 1, the lightly salted, unfertilized sturgeon eggs—mostly harvested by Iranian and Russian fishermen who avidly chase that increasingly elusive fish in the Caspian Sea—to the more common varieties of Grades 2 and 3.
Among the top-rated caviars are those found in Osetra, Sevruga and Beluga sturgeons, with the latter considered to be the undisputable queen of
roe—mostly by virtue of its painstaking handling, delicate flavor, uniformly large pearl-sized grain (or globules), firmness to the bite, smooth texture and pure colors, from glossy jet black to pale gray. These are the qualities that justify the Beluga caviar’s jaw-dropping $7,000 to $10,000 price per kilogram (2.2. lbs.) or $200 to $300 or more per ounce.
Clusters of half-broken or soft fish-eggs are ranked Grade 2, while batches with mostly broken eggs, inferior flavor, consistency and color are sold as
Grade 3—although even the latter is delicious nourishment when mixed into spreads or dips with cream cheese, yogurt, sour cream, puréed avocado and even milk-thinned mashed potatoes.
From Bar Snack to Posh Tables — Hard to believe that just a few decades ago, when oceans were teeming with sturgeon an roe was plentiful, plates of salt-cured caviar were set out on bar counters as a free, thirst-inducing snack to encourage drinking. Roe was also liberally used as garnish on appetizer plates.
But as supplies dwindled and prices climbed, caviar disappeared from free saloon snacks and dinner condiments, to be eventually replaced by equally thirst inducing salted nuts and pretzels. In fact, serving portions keep shrinking even in upscale restaurants. Affluent consumers pay more when purchasing retail caviar for home consumption, while the less moneyed but addicted gourmets find themselves saving up longer and sacrificing more of their hard-earned savings for their rare caviar splurges, or are forced to give up their passion altogether.
Fortunately, those of us with less refined palates can still enjoy fairly decent caviar harvested from the somewhat more abundant fish species still populating the oceans.
Although some people gag at the mere mention of fish eggs and reject caviar (often along with oysters, mussels, sea urchins and squid) as “slimy,” aficionados appreciate its heady and complex flavors, nutritionists tout its health benefits and snobs go gaga for the social climbing calling card it represents as they try to fit in among the “one percent”.
Caviar Care and Serving Tips — Fragile fish-eggs should be handled gingerly to prevent breaking and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator—preferably on the bottom shelf or in the meat drawer—at around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When stored in its original sealed container, it can keep for about four weeks. Once opened, however, caviar should be consumed within two to three days.
Before tabling it, let the caviar sit in its glass, crystal or porcelain (not pottery) serving dish at room temperature for five to 10 minutes, then nestle
the dish in a bowl of shaved ice to keep it chilled and fresh while on display.
It is very important to use a non-metallic serving spoon—preferably one made from bone, horn or mother-of-pearl—since metal creates a
chemical reaction with the roe and lends it a most unpleasant flavor. While using a small plastic spoon might also be safe, it is considered to be unworthy of this luxury product and bad form in restaurants or at catered affairs.
Rewards of the Adventurous Palate — Recovering caviar snobs are often surprised to discover less expensive but still delicious alternatives to Caspian sturgeon roe—varieties that not only provide similar briny saltiness, interesting colors and piquant flavors to their treats, but at affordable prices that don’t require taking out a bank loan. Among them are the American caviar from sturgeon indigenous to the Missouri and Mississippi river systems—a small roe, dark brown to nearly black like Beluga with a nutty flavor reminiscent of Caspian Osetra—as well as paddlefish caviar distinguished by its translucent grey colored beads and buttery melt-in-your-mouth quality; trout caviar with large golden colored pearls and a subtle essence; and the tiny, golden orange pellets of flying fish roe, used as colorful accents on sushi in some Japanese restaurants.
For more exotic fare, try sea urchin roe, lumpfish caviar from Nordic seas—preferred by many for its crunchy, delicate sized beads and strong briny bite—and the pea-sized crimson-orange pearls of salmon caviar, each of which pops open in the mouth with an intense flavor. The latter is considered kosher by observant Jews, since it’s the product of a fish with scales—as opposed to the scale-less sturgeon’s roe, which is taboo under Biblical dietary laws.
Last but not least, while caviar is on the approved menu of fish-eating vegetarians, vegans have devised an imaginative ‘cheat’ by substituting a mostly kelp-derived seaweed caviar.
Live Large on Small Budget —Serving caviar as an appetizer or garnish is one way of pampering your taste buds on the cheap. Here are some ideas…
• Spread goat cheese or avocado on crackers, toast points or thinly sliced baguette rounds and top them with dollops of caviar. Garnish with lemon wedges and raw onion rings.
• Add color and saltiness by sprinkling caviar on devilled eggs.
• Scoop some room in half a baked potato and fill it with a mix of sour cream and caviar.
• Spoon some roe on grilled diver scallops and serve with a tablespoon of mashed potatoes mixed with spinach.
• Whip up a seafood pizza with toppings of wild caught shrimp, calamari rings and a circle of caviar in the center.
•Top a bowl of chilled Vichyssoise soup with red or black roe.
Nothing Like A Blini — Patrons of Manhattan’s splendiferous Russian Tea Room (RTR to habitués) have been feasting on caviar since its founding in 1927 by (so the legend goes) the Russian Imperial Ballet Company. In keeping with the atmosphere, caviar is served with an entourage of condiments once reserved for Czars. Starting at the deluxe end of the menu, tiny buckwheat pancakes called blini(s) are slathered with sweet (or if preferred, sour) cream, then piled with generous gobs of Sevruga, Ostera or Beluga caviar—the tab: $250 or more an ounce. This centerpiece is then surrounded with finely chopped onions, hardboiled eggs, smoked salmon, dill springs and finely chopped parsley.
Lower on the price list is the RTR’s Caviar Tasting buffet, which, at the time of this writing, also features the more affordable trout, salmon and white fish roe, as well as red caviar omelets. Accompanying libations include Vodka of assorted flavors and voltage and, of course, champagne.
To prepare your own home banquet, start by making blinis from scratch—remembering to enjoy the process, which gives you 45 minutes for
preparation and 25 minutes cooking time to salivate as you look forward to the completed feast.
Blini Ingredients (organic preferred when possible):
• 1 packet ‘quick’-type active dry yeast
• ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm (105 to 115 degrees F.) water
• 1-tablespoon honey
• ¾ cup buckwheat flour
• ¼ cup all-purpose white flour—preferably unbleached
• ¼ cup instant non-fat dry milk powder
• 2 tablespoons commercial sour cream or plain yogurt
• 1 and ½ tablespoons butter—melted and cooled
• 2 large eggs—separated
• Pinch of salt
• Butter—just enough pads to spread over griddle or cast iron or stainless steel skillet for non-stick, low heat cooking of blinis
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the yeast, water and honey. Let the mixture rest for about 5 minutes or until it is foamy. Stir in the flours, milk powder sour cream or yogurt, melted butter and egg yolks. Cover the bowl with a wet and wrung out kitchen towel and let the batter rest for 30 minutes. It will not rise very much but will form bubbles on the surface.
In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt just until they form stiff peaks—but do not overbeat them, or they may be difficult to fold. Gently, but thoroughly, fold the beaten whites into the batter.
Preheat a griddle or large skillet over medium- or low-heat and grease lightly with the butter. Spoon 1 and ½ to 2-tablespoon measures of the batter onto the preheated griddle or skillet. When bubbles have formed on the surface of these mini-pancakes and the bottoms are browned, turn them once and cook just until lightly browned on the other side.
Yield: About 30 blinis of two to two-and-a-half inch sizes.
Serve as a Platform for the Caviar, with such optional additions to taste as…
• Sour cream or plain, low-fat yogurt
• Thinly sliced red or sweet onion
• Chopped hardboiled eggs
• Fresh dill sprigs
• Small, attractively arranged slices of smoked salmon
• Lemon wedges
Elegant Caviar Appetizer — Easy to prepare, this tantalizing prelude to lunch or dinner sparks appetites and elicits compliments whether it graces a holiday table for many or an intimate meal for two.
• 1 French baguette (sliced into ½-inch rounds—as many as the portions you intend to serve)
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 4 ounces spreadable goat cheese
• 1 small red onion—diced
• 1 teaspoon fresh Italian parsley—finely chopped
• ½ teaspoon each of rosemary and thyme
• 4 hardboiled eggs—chopped
• 2 ounces of caviar (salmon, lumpfish or other roe of your
choice) per 4-6 servings
Brush the baguette slices (also known as crostini) with oil and toast in the oven, a pan or on the grill until golden.
Blend goat cheese with herbs and spread on the crostini. Top with a sprinkling of red onions, eggs and a dollop of caviar.