From Russia With Love
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - September 17, 2003 - Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Archive
You either love it or hate it. For some it is an unctuous delicacy. For others it’s overpriced, salty, fishy tasting goo. How does caviar taste? Well, yes, it is fishy and salty but there is also a richer flavor as well. Caviar is high in fat and cholesterol, which intermingles with the other flavors to produce a savory succulence. Like many exotic delectables, I imagine it’s an acquired taste. If you’ve acquired that taste, or at least a curiosity for it, then read on comrade.
“Real” caviar is the roe, (yes, fish eggs), of specific sturgeon, principally from the Caspian Sea. The three main types, from highest price and quality to lowest are beluga, osetra, and sevruga. They are named for the species of sturgeon from which they emanate. You can walk into any supermarket’s canned fish aisle and find lumpfish or salmon roe but connoisseurs will tell you that this is not caviar. The discerning palate will readily recognize the difference between these “caviars” and their Caspian counterparts. However, the difference between beluga, osetra, and sevruga is subtler. Is the $70 per ounce beluga twice as good as the $35 per ounce sevruga? Well, that’s like asking if the $200 bottle of wine is twice as good as the $100. The answer is no but if your willing or able to pay a higher price for disproportionately greater quality, the option exists.
Caviar is expensive for two main reasons. First is simple economics: supply and demand. The fishery is limited and somewhat depleted from over-harvesting but the world demand is high. Secondly, a considerable amount of time, effort, and labor is required to tap this precious resource.
Caviar is extremely perishable and should be packed in ice for the trip home from the store and then refrigerated. The sooner it’s consumed the better. Serve it in a bowl placed in a larger bowl of ice.
The classic method of serving caviar is with toast points, (small triangular pieces of toast). For the purist, the toast is not eaten with the caviar but merely used to hold it as it is scraped off with the teeth. However, equally traditional is rolling it into a blini with either melted butter or sour cream. (Some also like minced onion or chopped hard cooked eggs.) A blini is basically a crepe that is made with activated yeast and buckwheat flour. There are many blini recipes, each with different variations. Try this one:
• 1 package dry active yeast
• 1 ½ cups of all purpose flour
• 1 ½ cups of buckwheat flour
• 3 cups of warm milk
• 2 tablespoons of melted butter
• ½ teaspoon of salt
• 2 eggs, with the yolks and whites separated
Dissolve the yeast into the warm milk in a bowl. The milk must be at least 100 degrees to properly activate the yeast, but not over 110 or it will kill it. Cover the bowl and let it sit for 5 to10 minutes. Wisk the egg yolks and add them and the butter to the milk. Sift the flours with the salt and then mix the wet and dry ingredients. Beat the egg whites until just stiff and fold them into the mixture. Preheat a griddle with melted butter and ladle servings of the batter onto it. Cook until lightly golden on each side. Spoon a tablespoon of the caviar onto the blini, add melted butter or sour cream, roll, and enjoy.
There are two classic beverages served with caviar: champagne, which we’ll need a whole other article for, and my favorite, Russian vodka. We need to discuss martinis, vodka martinis, and yes, shaken, not stirred.
Rinse a martini glass with water and place it in the freezer. Pour three ounces of your favorite vodka into a cocktail shaker filled about three quarters with ice. Shake it vigorously and strain into the chilled glass. A few points here:
1) Technically this is not a true martini because I’ve eliminated the vermouth. I see no point in adulterating the taste of perfectly good vodka.
2) The martini should be cold. James Bond was right. Shaking intensifies the chilling effect of the ice and infuses the vodka with tiny ice crystals. You could leave your bottle of vodka in the freezer but then it becomes somewhat syrupy.
3) The glass, ice, and shaker should be very clean. The slightest impurities will produce a noticeable change in taste. You can always tell a sloppy bartender from the taste and temperature of your martini.
4) Use a high quality vodka. You may be able to hide some of the flavor of an inferior vodka in a mixed drink, but you won’t get away with it in a martini. Premium vodkas are also smoother and most suited to drinking in pure form. Here is one case where the higher price is worth every penny. I recommend Stolichnaya. As the Russians say when they toast: Na zdorovie! (To your health).