Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I have learned about CAVIAR

Until I married into the Boyer family, I was convinced I did not like caviar. Of course my only experience with it was at cocktail parties where a salty black spread on toast was offered up as "caviar." My father-in-law served caviar at my first Boyer family Christmas. I declined a spoonful he proudly doled out to each of us, beseeching him not to waste it on me, who did not appreciate the delicacy. He insisted I taste it, and as the tiny pearls released their nutty flavors in my mouth, I realized I had never tasted caviar before. I happily took my portion.  

In the 1980s Gerard and I represented the radio station he worked for (Europe1) at a $1,000-a-plate charity dinner (the station paid). All of the money raised from the two hundred guests went to the charity, as Marcel Dassault (the famous French aircraft industrialist) paid for the dinner. To oohs and ahhs, each table was served a large glass bowl of caviar on ice chips, passed around with a soup ladle so each person could take as much as he or she wanted. Seconds were offered before we moved on to foie gras and later lobster and dessert. The meal was so impressive to me that it inspired a New Year's Eve tradition for us and three other couples. Instead of going out to an overpriced Parisian restaurant and spending a fortune (they always hiked up their prices that night), we started pooling our resources and buying caviar, smoked salmon and foie gras with wines to accompany each and celebrating at home together.. The first year it was my job to go to Petrossian and purchase the caviar, the salmon and the blinis.

I waited on line for over an hour, and when it came to my turn, I was intimidated by the signs with prices ranging from 1,800 to 3,400 francs per kilo. (Today they cost between $2,000 and $4,800 a pound). Unsure of which to get, I asked the retailer his opinion. He had me taste all three—Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga—and asked which I preferred. I admitted that I liked them all and my uneducated palate could hardly tell the difference. He then advised me to buy the least expensive and get almost twice as much for the same price. I followed his advice, and my friends were thrilled. I asked why the Beluga was so much more expensive than the Sevruga. He explained that it was not a difference in quality; even though he thought the Beluga was the best, he did not think it was so much better than the Sevruga as to warrant the price difference. It was a simply a question of supply and demand. Most customers who were unsure of which to buy went for the most expensive—driving the price way up, far beyond the gastronomic value.

True caviar consists of brined unfertilized sturgeon eggs (roe). Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga sturgeons, with the largest roe and the lightest color, are considered the very best. Very light, or golden, roe is also designated “Imperial” caviar or “Royal” caviar, as it was once reserved only for royalty. Today all types of sturgeon are on the endangered species list. Eighty-five percent of today's wild caviar originates in the Caspian Sea, shared by Russian and Iranian producers.
American caviar
Recently American caviar has come into fashion—or should I say "back into fashion," because in the early nineteenth century, the United States was actually the world's leading producer of caviar. An abundance of lake sturgeon made it so plentiful and inexpensive that saloons served it to make customers thirstier. (Today peanuts and pretzels are used for that purpose.)
In recent years sturgeon farming operations in the United States and abroad have preserved both the species and the industry by producing some very tasty alternatives. Commonly farmed varieties are Osetra, Baerii, and White Sturgeon. Raising them in artesian well water, feeding them the ideal toxin-free diet and harvesting their roe at the ideal time makes for premium-quality caviar. Wild caviar, which can only be extracted twice a year, is preserved by using heavy salting methods. Farm-fresh caviar is a very high quality, low-sodium and affordable alternative.
Nonsturgeon substitutes
Paddlefish caviar is a good substitute for Beluga caviar—clear, glossy beads, buttery flavor, and steel-gray- to golden-gray roe. Bowfin caviar—more commonly known by its Cajun name, Choupique—has a distinctively sturgeon essence, with a mild flavor and firm, black beads, although smaller in size than Beluga. Salmon caviar is a favorite of sushi chefs everywhere. Its intense salmon-flavored, juicy roe has a distinctive popping characteristic in the mouth. Lumpfish caviar from cold Nordic waters is surprisingly good-tasting despite the fact that it is not expensive. It comes in black and red and is one of the pasteurized caviar types.
Serving caviar
If serving caviar as an appetizer, you need to count about 50 grams per person, meaning that one pound serves 10 people. At one point Gerard and I had special caviar dishes that presented the caviar on shaved ice, with a special mother-of-pearl spoon (metal can affect the flavor of caviar). We have had some very good years and some much leaner ones, so we have learned many ways to enjoy caviar. One secret is that caviar marries very well with eggs, and an egg dish can be  transformed into a festive delight with a little bit of caviar.  
Classic Russian combinations
Caviar on
blini (tiny pancakes) with a dollop of crème frâiche or a mixture of sour cream and heavy cream. Toast points or a small, thinly sliced baguette will do. Caviar is also served with lemon wedges, finely chopped onion and chopped hard-boiled egg and capers.
Soft Boiled Eggs with Caviar
You will need about 12 grams of caviar per person—so for four people, buy 50 grams; for eight, you will need about 100 grams, or a quarter-pound. One farm-fresh egg per person. One- to two slices of toast per person. Soft-boil the eggs for three minutes. Let them cool off under running cold water and place them in the eggcups.  Cut the top part of the shell off. Stir the egg after adding some salt and white pepper. Add the caviar and decorate with a stem of fresh scallion. Serve with toast cut into strips so they can be dipped into the egg.
Scrambled Eggs with Caviar
You will need a teaspoon of caviar and two eggs per person. Whisk the eggs in a bowl with a quarter of a cup of half-and-half. Season with salt, and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a large omelet pan. Add the eggs and cook them over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the desired doneness. Away from the heat, add another tablespoon of butter and stir until it has melted. Serve hot on a slice of toasted brioche with sprinkle one teaspoon of caviar over each portion at the table.

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