Saturday, December 31, 2005

Caviar and Champagne

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

Serves 6

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.


Urban Agrarian said...

"we taste food with our memories and heritage" This is so true. I loved octopus salad my grandmother used to make just for me. My siblings would not eat it. I can not even hear the words 'octopus salad' without thinking fondly of her.

Shauna said...

I loved this post, my dear. I totally agree: food is so rarely about the taste alone.

Happy New Year! May there be many new food memories to come.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall the first time I had caviar, but it was definitely love at first bite. Also wonderful with a dab of sour cream on small boiled potatoes or potato pancakes. And some iced vodka!

Anonymous said...

I love beef tongue wrapped in corn tortillas with hot sauce. No matter what my friends thought, this was a treat! A meal that my family ate only on special occasions like our birthdays and as a reward for doing something good. It was introduced to us as children by my dad, who passed away when we were still very young. Every time I eat it I think of him. You are so right, I love it because it is part of my heritage and my fondest memories.

Marcela said...

So beautiful words and images...
Thanks for these post.
And Happy New Year! (full of memories and new experiences)

Anonymous said...

My dear gerl,
Thank you for rememberring your "tasty" childhood and writing such lovely memories about it.



Valyn said...

Hi Helen!
Any recommendations for where in Boston I can buy good caviar? I read once there are some Russian stores up in Lynn?

I'd like to serve caviar on New Year's eve.

Helen said...

Hi Valyn,

Happy Holidays to you and your family :)

For caviar, I usually go to one of the Russian stores. Bazaar in Allston is currently my favorite (though I haven't been in a while because we do New Years with my parents in Baltimore and they take care of caviar ;)

Here is their info:
424 Cambridge St
Allston, MA 02134

(617) 787-1511
For red (salmon roe), my favorite type is the one sold in green jars that say "Salmon Caviar" on them in English. I am not a big fan of buying it by weight. I think it stays better in jars. Don't let English on the jar scare you away. Most "Russia" caviar is farm-raised in California these days. There are still some red caviar that is imported, but I didn't notice a difference between that and American version produced for Russian market.

I am not much help in the black caviar department becuase it's so expensive. These days, it's all farm-raised stuff too. The few times I bought it, I bought it by weight because it's cheaper that way. The jarred stuff is probably better if you are willing to pay for it.

Hope you have a very joyous and yummy new year!


Anonymous said...

I found that has a good variety of salmon caviar. I got some the other week from them and it was very tasty, will order again for the holidays

Angie said...

Thanks for sharing. . =) great story. So true.