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

December 25, 1996|By Kathy Casey | Kathy Casey,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

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.

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