A toast to caviar, the memory-maker Elegance: There's nothing else that goes with New Year's and champagne.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What conjures up thoughts of a New Year's celebration more than caviar? The mere mention of it sends images of status, wealth, elegance and luxury dancing through our heads.

Christian Petrossian, whose father and uncle introduced Russian caviar to Paris in the 1920s, says, "It is more than a food -- it is a dream."

Even now I can easily relive an experience years ago when I was a line cook. The chef came up from the storeroom with a box of Belgian endive. He called me over and opened the box. There, tucked in with the perfect white heads, were a half-dozen miniature black jars. He told me to ice them down, that we'd all have a little treat after the dinner rush.

I was so excited as I awaited my first taste of beluga caviar. And it was no disappointment. We piled little spoonfuls on dainty toast points and gave them a quick shot from a lemon wedge. I reverently took a bite. The tiny, salty eggs burst against the roof of my mouth for an explosion of caviar ecstasy. From then on, I was hooked.

Traveling through Paris by myself a few years ago after a two-month American guest chef cooking tour in Italy, I was ready for some fabulous French culinary adventures. But trying to get into most of the "cool" places alone was difficult -- except for the dinner that saved my trip.

Caviar Kaspia in the Madeleine neighborhood was the place. When you walked up the long stairs, you stepped into a spectacular little restaurant almost from out of this time. The maitre d' and waiters were charming and attentive, and obviously knew I was a tourist. But instead of being seated at the worst table, I was given a wonderful table immediately.

The menu was simple: caviar by the ounce and smoked salmon the same way. I ordered an ounce of beluga and a little frozen pitcher of iced vodka -- the same as a table of older, sophisticated Parisian ladies I saw across from me do. The service, the atmosphere, and, oh, the caviar was truly a wonderful food memory I can taste to this day.

And, as you might expect from the truly addicted, I also relish many of the other caviars on the market today. Crunchy-textured, fluorescent orange, flying fish roe called tobiko shows up in California rolls and is creatively used by many chefs to decorate their fusion dishes, as when it is sprinkled on seared ginger scallops. Wasabi-spiked tobiko, flavored and tinted by Japanese green horseradish, adds a super-spicy kick to dishes. I love it scattered on smoked salmon.

If you like caviar, you don't have to mortgage the house to serve it during your New Year's party. These days, there are caviars to fit every budget; for example, whitefish, commonly known as American golden; salmon or ikura with its large orange eggs and clean natural flavor; and Yellowstone River paddlefish, which is light to steel gray, are excellent to try in a caviar tasting. Their reasonable prices and unique colors, sizes and textures make for a fun comparison experience.

Highest priced are the Russian sturgeon caviars from the Caspian Sea. These are considered to be the finest in the world.

The beluga sturgeon is the rarest. The female must be 18 to 20 years old before she produces eggs. With its golden-gray, translucent "berries," beluga is the most prized and expensive caviar there is.

Next most expensive is caviar from the osetra sturgeon. These females reach maturity between 12 and 15 years.

The least expensive and most abundant of the Russian sturgeon caviars is the sevruga. This fish matures in seven years and has the smallest eggs of the three.

Although Russian sturgeon are famous the world over, there are two species of these prehistoric-looking fish in the Pacific Northwest where I live. And every summer there is a small amount of Columbia River sturgeon caviar available, very

comparable to beluga in my mind. So, when in season, try to get your hands on some for a real treat.

Sturgeon caviar is best served simply. Some diners like to eat it straight from a spoon. But make sure that the spoon is not silver, for it will give the caviar a metallic taste. The ultimate connoisseur uses a traditional mother-of-pearl spoon. If you're a little short of these, however, you might acquire a set of plastic, ice cream-tasting spoons as the next best thing. I have often used a pair of smooth, lacquered chopsticks as an alternative.

Traditional accompaniments for the totally "correct" caviar service are toast points, plain or brushed with unsalted sweet butter, and perhaps a drizzle of creme fraiche and a few droplets of fresh lemon juice.

The favored beverages to sip with caviar are crisp and cold: frozen vodka or dry champagne.

Less rigid caviar eaters enjoy topping tiny, warm buckwheat blinis or cooked baby potatoes. For a twist on the topped potato, I like caviar on little puffy potato pancakes with a dollop of shallot-chive sour cream.

Other condiments, which the connoisseur shuns but which others enjoy, are sieved egg yolks, finely chopped egg whites, and minced onion or fresh-snipped chives.

Caviar need not cost a fortune or be served in a ritualistic way to be enjoyed at a party. And a little can go a long way. Less expensive sevruga or paddlefish caviar is great for topping fresh-shucked, icy cold oysters or sprinkling over angel hair pasta with creme fraiche, chives and lemon. One friend loves caviar's cold contrast dolloped on a big bowl of hot, buttered sweet corn.

To me, it is almost the mood, surroundings and who you are enjoying this luxurious food with that makes it so alluring.

This recipe can easily be doubled for a large party. Even though it has quite a bit of butter, you could cut down on the fat a bit and use nonfat sour cream and nonfat milk.

Caviar-topped potato pancakes

Makes 24 pancakes

1 ounce high-quality caviar

1/2 cup sour cream, divided

2 teaspoons finely minced shallots

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh chives

3/4 teaspoon finely minced lemon zest

1/4 pound baby red potatoes (3 to 4 potatoes), unpeeled

2 tablespoons milk

1 large egg, separated

1/4 cup sour cream

6 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 heaping teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup butter, melted

oil

To prepare caviar, I like to place unopened container in plastic bag, then nestle it in bowl of ice in refrigerator, as caviar must be well chilled before serving.

To prepare chive-sour cream, combine 1/4 cup sour cream, shallots, chives and lemon zest in small bowl. Cover and refrigerate.

To prepare potato pancakes, place unpeeled potatoes in small pan and cover with water. Bring to simmer and cook until very tender. Cooking time will vary depending upon size of potatoes. Be sure not to boil potatoes, only simmer slowly, or they will break up and be waterlogged. When done, drain thoroughly. While still hot, mash well. Stir milk into potatoes and set aside.

Combine egg yolk and 1/4 cup sour cream in medium bowl and whisk well. Stir in potato mixture. Sprinkle in flour, baking powder, salt and pepper and stir in only until incorporated. Stir in melted butter.

Right before you are ready to cook pancakes, whip egg white until stiff but not dry. Fold half of egg white into batter to lighten it. Gently fold in remaining half.

Heat nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat until hot. Drizzle in a little oil and rub around with folded paper towel, seasoning pan well with oil and picking up any extra oil. Spoon batter by tablespoonfuls onto pan. Cook first side until golden brown, then turn and cook until golden brown on other side. Cook in batches while keeping pancakes warm on baking sheet in 200-degree oven.

To serve, top each pancake with small dollop ( 1/2 teaspoon) chive-sour cream and small dollop ( 1/4 teaspoon) caviar. Serve immediately.

Notes: I like to have 2 pans going at once. As soon as first batch of pancakes is done, I garnish them quickly on a tray, passing to guests immediately so pancakes are hot and puffy -- a perfect contrast against the cold caviar and creamy sour cream.

One ounce of caviar will be about 1/4 teaspoon per pancake. You may want to increase amount of caviar if you are feeling decadent.

I like to use 1/4 teaspoon of American golden caviar and 1/4 teaspoon of osetra or sevruga on each pancake for a great color contrast.

What are the distinctive characteristics of the different caviars? Here are notes and comments from a tasting we conducted. Plan your tasting according to your budget. Just look at all the wonderful choices.

Russian sturgeon caviars

Beluga: Biggest eggs. Dark gray. Fruity, rich flavor.

Osetra: Our favorite of the higher-priced caviars. Medium-size brown eggs and medium price. Smooth, fruity flavor. Good plain on thin toast.

Sevruga: Smallest eggs. Stronger flavor than others.

Other caviars

Montana River paddlefish: Small gray eggs. Looks like sevruga. Big flavor -- less refined than Russian.

Montana golden whitefish: Our favorite of the inexpensive caviars. Small, firm, golden eggs. Good pop, clean flavor.

Chum salmon (ikura): Big orange eggs. Big burst in mouth. Clean salmon flavor. Beautiful as a garnish; accessorizes well (lemon, wasabi, creme fraiche).

Flying fish roe (tobiko): Tiny, tiny eggs. Bright orange. Super crunch you can hear. Sweet flavor.

Wasabi tobiko: Colored and flavored with Japanese horseradish. Brilliant lime-green color. Zippy hot. Great with a tiny bit of minced fresh ginger.

Caribbean caviar: Tobiko with spicy habanero-chile flavoring. Bright orange.

Sources

These sources can help if you can't find the selection you are looking for in area specialty stores:

Seattle Caviar Co., 3147 Fairview Ave. East, Seattle, Wash. 98102. (206) 323-3005. Great source for Northwest fresh caviar. Montana golden whitefish caviar is our favorite. Also carries Russian caviars.

Carolyn Collins Caviar, 925 W. Jackson Blvd., 3rd floor, Chicago, Ill. 60607. (800) 226-0342. Specializes in caviar made from American freshwater fish. Also has eclectic-flavored caviars, such as fresh ginger-infused whitefish caviar and smoked caviars.

Caviar Direct. (800) 650-2828. Fresh Russian caviar, American sturgeon, salmon and golden caviars. Shipped anywhere in the United States.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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