Caviar, once upon a holiday past, meant a tin of Caspian sturgeon roe nestled in ice with a mother-of-pearl spoon, accompanied by Champagne. Today, concerns about the environmental impact of those fabled Caspian fisheries — and one's budget — call for greener (and more affordable) roe options from other types of fish that can still pack a decadent party punch.
"It wakes your mouth up. It's a slap on your palate in a positive way," says Rick Moonen of RM Seafood restaurant in Las Vegas, on the enduring appeal of fish roe. "It's a pop and a burst of ocean flavor … I think it's just fun."
Fun, yes, but roes of all sorts — from salmon to trout to smelt — are not cheap. Still, with farm-raised imported royal osetra caviar starting at $144 an ounce (that's famed caviar purveyor Petrossian USA's price), shelling out about $13 for 2 ounces of whitefish roe (Seattle Caviar Co.) seems a veritable bargain.
Such is the visual appeal and the luxe aura of fish roes that you should keep it simple. The old-school presentation of caviar, toast points, hard-cooked egg and creme fraiche still appeals, but you can do plenty more. Imagine a platter of Belgian endive leaves, each adorned with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a tiny spoonful of rainbow trout roe. Tiny cooked potatoes or deviled eggs can be topped with any type of roe.
"Roes are a delicacy," says Alexandre Petrossian, vice president of Petrossian USA. The company's chefs work to use roe where you expect it least. Last summer, it was caviar in a watermelon, ricotta and cucumber salad, he says; now there's tuna tartare with caper, lemon and salmon roe.
Chef Bruce Sherman of North Pond restaurant in Chicago has a variety of roe ideas.
•Sprinkle roe into a vinaigrette before dressing a salad plate because the look of the eggs gleaming in the oil is "colorful and striking."
•Spoon roe onto a bagel with cream cheese (use the mini bagels for a passed hors d'oeuvre) or fold into an omelet.
•Use smoked Spanish herring roe to garnish soups.
"Even a canape topped with whipped creme fraiche, salmon eggs and a piece of chive or chervil is pretty,'' he says.
To get started, look for fish roe at seafood shops or specialty grocery stores with good seafood counters; or check online sources. If you cannot find a type of roe specified in the recipes, sub with another. Then try one of the simple ideas here.
Mini caviar pies
Prep: 1 hour
Bake: 8 minutes
Makes: 12 servings
This recipe is adapted from one developed by Betsy Sherrow, co-founder of Seattle Caviar Co. She calls for three types of roe, but you may use just one type, if you like.
6 slices white sandwich bread
4 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled, chopped
1/4 cup mayonnaise
6 fresh dill fronds, chopped
6 fresh chives, chopped
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
2 ounces golden whitefish roe
2 ounces red flying fish roe or salmon roe
1 ounce paddlefish roe
1 Cut two discs from each slice of bread with a round cookie cutter (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter; use a smaller cutter for more discs). Brush with olive oil on each side. Place discs on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake in a 350-degree oven until pale golden and crisp, 8-10 minutes. Cool.
2 Combine the chopped eggs with the mayonnaise, herbs and salt. Layer egg salad atop each disc. Frost the salad with creme fraiche; finish with concentric circles of three colors of fish roe.
Prep: 20 minutes
Makes: 2 cups
Adapted from Ina Garten's "Barefoot Contessa Parties!" Serve with chips, toasts or crackers.
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, plus sprigs for garnish
1 green onion, minced
1 tablespoon milk, half-and-half or cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
100 grams (3.5 ounces) salmon roe
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the cream cheese until smooth. On medium speed, add the sour cream, lemon juice, minced dill, green onion, milk, salt and pepper to taste. With a rubber spatula, fold in three-quarters of the salmon roe. Spoon the dip into a bowl; garnish with the remaining salmon roe and sprigs of dill.
Oysters with cucumber-ginger mignonette and wasabi whitefish roe
Prep: 45 minutes
Chill: 2 hours
Makes: 24 oysters
This oysters-on-the-half-sell presentation was developed by Rick Moonen, executive chef of RM Seafood in Las Vegas.
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
24 oysters, shucked
1 large seedless cucumber, finely diced
2 ounces wasabi flavored whitefish roe
1 Whisk together the ginger, shallot, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce until the sugar is dissolved. Chill, at least 2 hours.
2 Arrange the oysters their bottom shells on crushed ice. Cover each oyster with the chopped cucumber. Stir the mignonette again; spoon a small amount over the cucumbers just to bathe the oyster. Top each with a generous dollop of roe.
Going for green roe
Consider sustainability in choosing a fish roe for eating. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has a handy online guide at seafoodwatch.org to help you choose among the various types of roe. Not all roes are listed, so check with your purveyor about where the roe is from and whether the fish from which it was harvested was wild or farm-raised.
Here are Seafood Watch's "best choices" and "good alternatives":
•Capelin (smelt roe, masago): Method: Wild. Location: Iceland. (Good alternative: Wild. Location: Canada.)
•Salmon roe (ikura): Method: Drift gillnet, purse seine, troll. Location: Alaska.
•Sea urchin (uni): Method: Wild. Location: Canada. (Good alternative: Wild. Location: California.)
•Sturgeon (beluga, osetra and sevruga caviar, sturgeon roe): Method: Farmed. Location: United States.
•White sturgeon (beluga, osetra and sevruga caviar, sturgeon roe): Method: Farmed in tank systems. Location: Canada.
What is caviar?
"Simply sieved and lightly salted fish roe (eggs)," reports "The New Food Lover's Companion." "Sturgeon roe is premium and considered the "true" caviar." The three types of sturgeon caviar are beluga, osetra and sevruga. The Caspian Sea has long been the source of the best and most costly caviar but other countries, including the United States, also raise sturgeon for caviar.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says only sturgeon roe can be labeled solely as "caviar." The labels of caviar made from all other fish roes must identify the fish, as in "whitefish caviar" or "salmon caviar." The word "malossol" on the label means "the roe is preserved with a minimal amount of salt," according to the "Companion."