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Something's Fishy But in a Good Way
Simply put, caviar is lightly salted roe or fish eggs. Sturgeon roe is considered premium and "true" caviar. It comes in four varieties -- beluga, sevruga, osetra and ship.
The most expensive is beluga caviar ($174/ounce in 2008 pricing) from beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Russia and Iran. Beluga is characterized by soft, pea-size eggs ranging from pale silver-gray to black.
Next in line is osetra caviar which is medium size and gray to brownish gray in color. Next in quality is the smaller, gray sevruga caviar. Last, but not least, is ship, a small- to medium-size, dark-colored caviar sometimes mixed with osetra and sevruga. On its own, it has a sevruga flavor but with an odd musty aftertaste.
Caviar is extremely perishable and must be refrigerated and eaten within three weeks of taking it from the fish. There is some disagreement about freezing caviar for longer shelf life. Some say it's a no-no, others say it should be frozen by the processor and be purchased frozen by the consumer.
Much less expensive caviars include lumpfish caviar with tiny, hard, black eggs, whitefish caviar (also called American Golden) with small yellow-gold eggs and salmon caviar (also called red caviar) with medium, pale orange to deep red eggs.
Considered inferior by caviar snobs, this is roe that has been partially cooked to extend the shelf life. But the cooking changes the texture of the eggs and, therefore, the flavor. Canned caviars are pasteurized.
Considered the most inferior by caviar snobs, but much more affordable and ideal when using caviar in spreads, pressed caviar consists of damaged eggs and can be a mixture of varieties and grades.
What to Look for in Caviar
Fresh caviar should be bright, shiny and whole. It should not appear smashed or dull. Like good quality-fish, it shouldn't smell fishy at all. It should smell of a sea breeze.
Classic Caviar Accompaniments
It should be served simply with blini or toast points and lemon wedges. Garnishes include chopped hard-cooked egg, minced red or white onion, chopped dill, sour cream or creme fraiche, and ice-cold vodka or dry champagne.
How Today's Chefs Are Using Caviar
Chef Rick Tramonto, of Tru Restaurant in Chicago, uses caviar traditionally, accompanied by minced onion, chopped hard-cooked eggs, creme fraiche instead of sour cream, lemon, and nontraditional capers, but it's his presentation that is avant garde. He uses a glass staircasedesigned to his specifications for each component of this classy appetizer. Instead of blini, he uses toast points.
Other chefs have taken liberties with the blini and made them with cornmeal, whole-wheat or all white flour, and added chives, garlic and other ingredients, including avocadoes in the batter!
Still others are using caviar in cooked dishes, adding it just at the end so as not to toughen the eggs. But the majority of chefs still use this fragile delicacy in cold offerings or as garnish.
American Freshwater Caviar
Proponents of American freshwater caviar say the quality is starting to rival that of Russian beluga, which is fast becoming an endangered species.
Rachel Collins, the owner of Collins Caviar, says "Collins Caviar is the only processor of handmade American freshwater caviars (not an importer). We offer low-salt hackelback sturgeon ($46/ounce 2008 pricing), paddlefish, American Golden whitefish, and flavor-infused and smoked caviars."
Collins' mother, Carolyn Collins, founded the company in 1983. An avid fisherwoman, she turned her hobby into a profession after seeing the beautiful roe of the Great Lakes Chinook salmon going to waste when it was discarded with the rest of the innards. Carolyn Collins researched the process of turning raw fish roe into succulent fine caviar -- a closely guarded secret -- and became a self-taught caviar maker.
Her handmade fresh Great Lakes salmon and trout caviars quickly became an exclusive menu item for several upscale Chicago restaurants and appeared on menus in dishes like Coconut Blini with Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream and Mango Caviar, Bloody Mary Gazpacho with Caviar Peppar Crouton Floats, Thick-Cut Sweet Potato Chips and Citron Caviar Creme Spread, among many others.
The Process Remains the Same
In 1985, Rachel Collins joined the company and became president in 1998 when her mother retired. Now as then, hand-processed low-salt salmon caviar is still made fresh every week, along with hackleback sturgeon, paddlefish, and American Golden whitefish caviars.
Having established the traditional caviar business, the Collinses began offering flavor-infused and smoked caviars, truffle butter and lobster roe. Rachel Collins is the creative force behind Collins Caviar Creme Spread.
Take a virtual tour of Collins Caviar and watch their blini-making process (Collins Caviar is no longer selling homemade blini).
How Much Caviar to Buy
The most logical answser would be, "How much can you afford?" But, these are some things to consider. How many guests will there be? Is the caviar being served on passed hors d'oeuvres or from an appetizer table? Are your guests big caviar eaters? Here are some guidelines.
There are 8-10 (1/2 teaspoon) servings of caviar in one ounce.
There are about 20 (1/4 teaspoon) garnish servings per ounce of caviar.
For real caviar enthusiasts, figure at least 1/2 to 1 ounce of caviar per person!
- If caviar is being served by itself, or with crackers or toast points, a 2-ounce jar serves about four people. For canapes, a 2-ounce jar should serve eight people.
SOURCE: American Caviar
Handling and Serving Caviar
Caviar is tender and fragile and needs to be treated with TLC. Use a nonmetallic spoon -- preferably mother of pearl, tortoise shell, bone, ceramic or even plastic -- to lift vertically from top to bottom to avoid crushing the egg. When using large "grain" (which refers to the egg size) salmon caviar as a garnish, remove single grains or eggs with the tip of a table knife.
For best flavor, remove the jars of caviar from the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes before serving, and open just prior to their consumption.