Originally published Dec. 1, 1996
By Kathy Casey, former Taste contributor
WHAT CONJURES THOUGHTS of celebration — not to mention status, wealth, elegance and luxury — more than caviar?
Even now, I easily can relive an experience years ago when I was a line cook: The chef comes up from the storeroom with a box of Belgian endive. He calls me over and opens the box. There, tucked in with the perfect white heads, are a half-dozen miniature black jars. He tells me to ice them down, that we’ll all have a little treat after the dinner rush. I was excited. My first taste of beluga caviar! It was no disappointment. We piled little spoonfuls on dainty toast points and gave them a quick shot from a lemon wedge. I reverently took a bite. The tiny, salty eggs burst against the roof of my mouth, an explosion of caviar ecstasy. From then on, I was spoiled.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t like many of the other caviars on the market today.
Crunchy, fluorescent-orange flying-fish roe, called tobiko, shows up in California rolls and is creatively used by many chefs to decorate their fusion dishes — sprinkled on seared ginger scallops, for instance. Wasabi-spiked tobiko, flavored and tinted by the Japanese green horseradish, adds a super-spicy kick to dishes. I love this one scattered on smoked salmon.
If you like caviar, you don’t have to mortgage the house to have some of it from time to time. These days, there are caviars to fit every budget.
Caviars such as whitefish, commonly known as American golden; salmon, or ikura, with its large orange eggs and clean natural flavor; and Yellowstone River paddlefish, colored light to steel gray, are excellent to try in a caviar tasting, with reasonable prices and unique colors, sizes and textures.
Most prized and expensive are the Russian sturgeon caviars from the Caspian Sea. The beluga sturgeon is the rarest, and the female must be 18 to 20 years old before she produces her eggs: golden-gray, translucent “berries.”
Less expensive is caviar from the osetra sturgeon. These females reach maturity between 12 and 15 years. Least expensive and most abundant of the Russian sturgeon caviars is the sevruga. This fish matures in seven years and has the smallest eggs of the three.
Although Russian sturgeon are famous the world over, there are two species of these prehistoric-looking fish here in the Pacific Northwest. Every summer, there is a small amount of Columbia River sturgeon caviar available — very comparable to beluga, in my mind. Try to get your hands on some in season for a real treat.
Sturgeon caviar is best served very simply. Some like to eat it straight from a spoon. Make sure that spoon is not silver, for it will give the caviar a metallic taste. The ultimate connoisseur uses a traditional mother-of-pearl spoon. If you’re a little short of these, however, you might — as some limited-budget connoisseurs do — use plastic, ice-cream-tasting spoons. I often use a pair of smooth, lacquered chopsticks.
Traditional accompaniments for the “correct” caviar service are toast points, plain or swiped with unsalted sweet butter, and perhaps a drizzle of creme fraiche and a few droplets of fresh lemon juice. The favored beverages to sip with caviar are crisp and cold — frozen vodka or dry Champagne.
Less-rigid caviar eaters enjoy topping tiny, warm buckwheat blinis (small, thin pancakes) or cooked baby potatoes. For a different twist on the topped potato, I like caviar on little puffy potato pancakes with a dollop of shallot-chive sour cream. Other condiments shunned by connoisseurs but enjoyed by many are sieved egg yolks, finely chopped egg whites, and minced onion or fresh-snipped chives.
Caviar need not cost a fortune nor be served ritualistically to be enjoyed. A little can go a long way. Less-expensive sevruga or paddlefish caviar is great for topping fresh-shucked, icy-cold oysters or sprinkling over angel-hair pasta with creme fraiche, chives and lemon. One friend loves caviar’s cold contrast dolloped on a big bowl of hot, buttered sweet corn.
To me, it is almost the mood, surroundings and who you are enjoying the caviar with that make it so alluringly special.
For our 10th anniversary, a seafood-guru friend gave my husband and me 8 ounces — yes, one-half pound — of local, fresh green-sturgeon caviar. We ate it by candlelight, under a grape arbor at a stone table on a warm summer’s eve. We toasted with a chilled bottle of La Grande Dame Champagne. We ate great spoonfuls alone and on thin slices of rustic bread. I plucked chives from the nearby herb garden, and we sprinkled them on. I pulled up a shallot, and we slivered it on. It was soooo wonderful.
But try as we might, we couldn’t finish the jar, so we shared it with friends the next day. Some things are so rich — you just can’t eat the whole thing!