December 07, 2021
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Diane De Filipi, Italian Lessons: Consider caviar for the holidays

It’s time to consider simply elegant ideas for the holidays and special occasion gatherings ahead. Or maybe I should just say, simple and elegant.

Before Champagne, oysters and even the lauded truffle were declared delicacies, caviar was sought after by kings and aristocracy. The ancient Greeks, Romans and the tsars of Russia sought out the extravagant and mysterious little black pearls.

It’s not unusual for a first-time caviar taster to experiment with a few bites before the lightbulb goes on and he or she  “gets it.” Having heard so much about it for so long, that first salty bite with the firm and smooth texture is only the beginning of the experience.

After that first bite, as the caviar dissolves in your mouth, you’ll discover a soft creaminess as the inside of the eggs release their buttery full flavor. Taste and texture define this splurge.

The finest, most expensive caviars are mature, larger eggs, lighter in color. Lower quality caviar is younger, with a less intensely fishy flavor, and darker in color.

Don’t let words like “splurge” and “extravagant” scare you off. Caviar is really not as expensive as you might imagine. It’s not cheap, but remember that a little goes a long way. Caviar is a garnish with very forward flavor, allowing a small jar to serve multiple guests generously. Caviar prices have actually dropped in recent years, thanks to the progress in aquaculture, the discovery of lake sturgeon, and sturgeon farming.

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Production of caviar may have begun in Russia, the premier caviar traders by the early 20th century, but with the discovery of wild sturgeons globally the industry has expanded to Italy, France, the U.S. and China.

Traditionally, caviar is gleaned from three types of sturgeon, Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga. American farmed caviar supports efforts to protect the international overfishing threat to the sturgeon population.

Caviar was originally harvested by Russian and Persian fishermen in the Caspian Sea. The unfertilized salt-cured fish eggs now come from approximately 26 different species of sturgeon.

In 2005 Beluga caviar was banned from sale in the U.S. due to the decline in the wild population. This being said, a sustainable production aquafarm in Florida produces a Beluga that is large, firm and offers that buttery, creamy, nutty flavor with a long finish in the mouth.

I liken caviar to truffles when creating or selecting recipes. The garnish is the flavor experience I’m aiming for, so it’s best to keep your dish simple. Let the garnish shine.

Fun facts about caviar:

The salmon roe topping your sushi is not caviar.

Caviar has a healthy shelf life, even after opening the jar. Store the jar in the coldest part of your fridge and it will keep nicely for up to a month.

Caviar groupies seek out “reserve” caviar.

In the Middle Ages, many countries implemented laws that reserved the finest caviar for the monarchy.

The omega 3 fatty acids of caviar are believed to provide several health benefits. An aphrodisiac perhaps?

Caviar graders are respected much like a sommelier and must possess a “musical ear.”. When the fish eggs rub against one another in packing a subtle friction can be heard.

Caviar aficionados will use the French “a la royale” method for tasting caviars. Caviar is placed on the back of the hand for a moment to warm to body temperature and then licked off the back of the hand. This full, unadulterated tasting helps to determine the best pairing for specific caviars.

And with caviar?

What to pair with caviar? Hands down it’s Champagne or another sparkling wine.

For pairing with food, here’s where the simple comes in. The popular go-to is bite-sized blini, a firm Russian pancake. A tiny dollop of crème Fraiche (don’t be afraid to use sour cream) topped with a pinch of caviar.

My favorite pairings are with simple potatoes, eggs, or pasta. Back in the day, even the Russians choose caviar on baked potatoes before the blini came along.

These days we see caviar on pizza and even burgers. I respectfully disagree. Too many flavor profiles and textures and the pleasure of the caviar just disappears. The sophistication and elegance shouldn’t be hidden.

Deviled eggs with caviar garnish. It doesn’t get much easier than this. Use your favorite deviled egg recipe and simply omit any pickle relishes.

As an appetizer, angel hair pasta with caviar, cream and lemon always receive rave reviews at my table. Salty caviar and some bright citrus is foodie fun.

Angel Hair Lemon Pasta and Caviar

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup sour cream

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Grated zest and juice from half a large thick-skinned lemon

4 oz. angel hair pasta

2 oz. caviar

Minced chives

Whisk cream and sour cream in a large skillet. Add salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat until sour cream melts. This takes about 5 minutes.

Add lemon zest and half of the juice.

The sauce should be thick enough to thoroughly coat the pasta.

Prepare pasta per package instruction. Al dente is recommended, but if you prefer your pasta more tender this will work just as well.

Drain pasta, reserving half of the pasta water.

Add pasta to the sauce and toss to coat completely. Turn off heat and let pasta rest in the sauce for 5 minutes. Tossing to coat a couple of times.

If the sauce is too thin, allow to simmer a couple of minutes longer. If the sauce is too thick, thin it out with a small amount of reserved pasta water.

Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice if desired. Serve immediately while piping hot.

Spoon caviar evenly onto separate plates. Using a large fork, twirl pasta into a large forkful and slide it off the fork over the top of the caviar. Spoon leftover sauce over pasta.

Sprinkle with chives and a pinch more of lemon zest.

Stuffed New Potatoes with Caviar

12 new red potatoes – skins on

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¾ cup sour cream

3 teaspoon finely minced chives

¼ teaspoon sea salt

Pinch of white pepper

2 oz. caviar – any variety

Zest from ½ large lemon

Pinch of paprika

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Wash potatoes thoroughly.

Place potatoes on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until slightly crispy, about 45 minutes. Fork test for doneness. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Cut each potato in half crosswise.

Carefully scoop potato pulp into a bowl. Leave a thin shell of the potato skin.

Turn empty skins over and brush bottoms with olive oil. Return skins to the oven and allow to crisp an additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

Adjust heat down to 425 degrees.

Add ½ cup sour cream, chives, paprika, salt, and pepper to potato pulp and stir together.

Fill each potato skin evenly with the mixture. Use a small teaspoon or pastry bag with a medium tip.

Return the stuffed potatoes to the baking sheet and continue to bake for another 15 minutes.

Garnish each potato with a dollop of remaining sour cream, caviar, and a tiny pinch of zest.

Serve piping hot.

Silky Eggs and Caviar

4 large eggs

¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 oz. caviar

¼ cup sour cream

¼ cup finely minced red onion

4 slices toast of choice

Whisk eggs and salt in a bowl. Melt butter in a non-stick skillet. Over medium heat, add eggs and cook until eggs begin to set around the edges. Takes only a minute or two. Reduce heat and cook, gently stirring constantly for an additional minute.

When eggs are just beginning to set and no liquid is visible, add cream, and fold in to combine well. This will keep your eggs silky.

Serve immediately, topping each serving sour cream, caviar, and onion. Toasts on the side.

Silky eggs are a lovely addition to a champagne brunch or even as a midnight snack.

Crab Dipping Sauce

If you are eagerly anticipating crab season, this dipping sauce is no muss no fuss. Don’t skimp on the quality of your caviar. Inexpensive caviars that are artificially colored can turn your beautiful sauce gray.

1 cup sour cream

2/3 cups Best Foods mayonnaise

4 teaspoons lemon juice

Hot pepper sauce to taste

4 oz. black caviar

4 cooked crabs

Toasted French bread

Whisk the first 3 ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste with hot pepper sauce. Fold in black caviar. Divide sauce between 4 ramekins. Serve crabs (hot or cold) with dipping sauce and toast.

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Diane De Filipi lives in Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or letsgocookleboncuisine.com for more information.