Saturday, October 17, 2009


There was a time when no one was a "foodie" -- there were "gourmets" instead, known for their love of French food, not a passion for a good cheeseburger or a need to find the best bahn mi in the city, and associated with "delicacies" that were thought to be "acquired tastes" and came from the undesirable parts of animals.  Goose liver.  Snails.  Thymus glands.  Fish eggs.

This is unfortunate, and not a little bit stupid, but some of the gourmets of the 1950s and 1960s played that up, just as some geeks will play up the idea that liking some robot show or dragon book makes them fundamentally different from the general populace, just as some teenagers will promote the idea that their iPod playlists explain what kind of person they are.  Any silly stereotype that groups people together and draws conclusions about those groups will find people within the group who embrace the idea of that deeper difference, that impenetrability.  But you know that.  You've seen the X-Men movies, or read Eco and Saussure, or whatever it is you've done.

The truth is, most of those 1950s gourmet club staples are not at all acquired tastes in the same sense that Talleggio cheese is, or uni, or even a gueuze lambic.  Foie gras is rich but not very strong-tasting, per se.  Escargots taste like the garlic butter they're cooked in, and little else.  Sweetbreads have almost no flavor, and are vehicles for sauce.  And caviar -- any roe -- tastes like fish, reasonably enough.  Fish eggs taste a good deal more like fish than chicken eggs taste like chicken, that's for sure.

"Roe" is the general term for fish eggs.  It's contained in a sac, but if you don't catch the fish yourself, you'll rarely see it that way.  There are a variety of camping/fishing recipes for roe sacs, which some outdoorsmen love -- which makes you wonder how they'd feel about caviar on toast points, I don't know -- but roe sold in stores, caviar or otherwise, has been cured.  Curing roe simply requires separating the eggs from the sac and one another, and immersing them in a brine of saltwater and a little sugar.  Otherwise they'll go bad too quickly.  The saltier the cure, the longer the shelflife, which is one reason roe has a reputation for being very salty.  It doesn't have to be.  The trout roe you see in this entry is malossol (Russian, "little salt"), meaning it has been cured with the minimum amount of salt.  It can be refrigerated or frozen before being opened, but once open, you have about a weekend to use it up -- which is why there are three different photos here, you dig.

"Real" caviar is the roe of the sturgeon, and is expensive partly because of demand and partly because of overfishing.  As a result of the demand, there's a lot of pasteurized shelf-stable caviar on the market, sitting on your supermarket shelves for months before someone buys it for a dinner party.  I would say not to bother, but I have never really been thrilled by sturgeon caviar to begin with, so I'm really the wrong person to ask.

You sometimes see "salmon caviar" mentioned, with the modifier necessary just as you can't call a turkey burger merely a "burger."  I think it makes more sense to refer to salmon roe, but whatever.  You can get salmon roe at any sushi joint, though I don't think it really suits sashimi well -- you get a bite of just roe with no other flavors, which can be overwhelming.  I order salmon roe sometimes at my sushi place, but after one piece, I don't particularly want another.

There are all sorts of other kinds of roe available in different countries, different types of stores.  Because the sturgeon is not generally considered kosher, and because fish eggs go so nicely with cream cheese, these non-sturgeon roe have long been found, even before America's gourmet clubs, in "appetizing stores," those stalwarts of Jewish-American cuisine which sell "things that go well with bagels": smoked fish, fish eggs, herring salad, etc.

Bagel, cream cheese, belly lox, trout roe

That's where I got my trout roe, in fact, from Russ & Daughters.  Here it is on a bagel, with cream cheese and belly lox.  Fantastic.

Trout roe is even milder than salmon roe.  It's little slightly salty spheres that burst in your mouth and are somewhat oily, with a light fresh fish flavor.  While belly lox has to be eaten with something else to keep from being overwhelming, trout roe can actually easily get lost.  Think of fish sauce, in Southeast Asian cooking, or anchovies on a pizza if you don't use too many.  Yes, there's a fishiness evident, but the presence doesn't automatically turn the dish into "a fish dish."  (To be clear, anchovies -- the ones I've had, anyway, the ones typically used in Italian-American checkered-tablecloth cooking -- are considerably stronger than trout roe.)

Fried eggs, fingerling potatoes, trout roe

Roe goes well with foods that make good platforms for flavor, like potatoes and eggs.  Brunch today -- I guess it's brunch, it was noon and there were eggs -- was fried eggs, roasted fingerling potatoes, trout roe, and a little of my reconstructed Buffalo wing sauce (roasted mild red chiles reduced to a jam, brown butter, homemade pepper mash) which I'll talk about in the epic hot wings post that will follow the pizza post.

And finally, I took a cue from culinary adventurer Heston Blumenthal, who pairs caviar with white chocolate.  My "trout roe bark" began with melted cocoa butter, sugar, and Bluegrass soy sauce, and dropped the roe in once the cocoa butter had cooled to room temperature.

Trout roe bark

It's surprisingly good, but the sort of thing you'd serve as an amuse or small dish before some other food.

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