I still remember the first time I tried caviar -- it felt like a dozen little bubbles bursting against the roof of my mouth, each one squirting the creamy, gooey liquid. The rich saltiness rolled in like a big sea wave. Mmmm – caviar. I was 7 and lived in Moscow, and it was the first time I was allowed to stay up until midnight and celebrate the New Year with the grown-ups. The table was teeming with zakuski – sturgeon, ham, pickled mushrooms, liver pâté, and herring in fur coat of shredded beets and potatoes. But the most tempting and anticipated dish was the caviar. Its little jar sat on the table like a jewelry box with bright orange beads. It was passed around along with bread and butter for everyone to make a little open-faced sandwich before toasting the passing year and wishing it farewell.
“Eeew, fish eggs” was my American friend’s reaction to my favorite food. “It’s slimy and salty. That’s disgusting.” I didn’t understand how fish eggs were any more disgusting than chicken eggs. Until I came to America at 13, I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like caviar before. Just imagine how an American child would feel if they offered a kid from another country their favorite chocolate bar, and were told that chocolate is disgusting because it is the color of poop. Although my friend’s rejection of caviar was disappointing to me at the time, it made me realize that we taste food with our memories and heritage, not just our pallets. To me caviar tastes not only salty and creamy; it tastes of New Year, of school break, of trying very hard not to fall asleep until midnight, and of proving to the world that I am a grown-up.
Red (salmon) caviar is much more affordable than black. Most people are surprised to find out that $5-7 can buy them enough caviar to serve as an appetizer for 6 people. No need for mother of pearl spoons, or other such fanciness. Good bread and butter is all you need -- that's how most Russians eat it. I usually top red caviar with sweet pickled onions to balance the salty creaminess of the roe.
This recipe is all about ingredients, so here are some tips on choosing the right ones. The plastic tasting Romanoff caviar sold in supermarkets won't do. Go to a Russian store and buy some real salmon caviar. Don't buy the cheaper ones -- they tend to be over-salted and gooey due to broken eggs. Whole Foods carries salmon roe too, but it's twice as expensive as in the Russian stores.
Red Caviar Canapés with Pickled Onions
For Pickled Onions
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup cold water
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 red onion
In a non-reactive container, combine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Peel the onion and slice it very thin (1/16") using an adjustable blade slicer like Benriner or a knife. Mix the onion with vinegar mixture, cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days.
For Caviar Canapés
Vienna bread, baguette, or brioche sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 oz red caviar
Spread bread slices with butter. Top with a layer of caviar, and a few slices of pickled onions. Serve with champagne or sparkling white wine.
Happy New Year everyone! I wish you many joyous feasts with the people you love.