Caviar. Even if you’ve never seen, let alone tasted, the glistening jam-like amalgam of cured sturgeon eggs, you probably have an opinion about it. For some, caviar is a symbol of old-world decadence, like peacock tongues. To others, it’s an acquired taste not worth acquiring. (Fish eggs! Expensive!)
And then there are those who think its clean, marine flavor and burst-in-the-mouth texture make any occasion instantly memorable.
Galen Zamarra — the James Beard–award winning chef of New York City’s Mas (farmhouse) and The Halyard at the Sound View, in Greenport — is in that last camp, and he shared his connoisseurship in a class devoted to the subject last Thursday evening. It’s one of a series that will feature striped bass (Jan. 11), smoked bluefish (Jan. 25) and oysters (right around Valentine’s Day). Each class is $35.
Mr. Zamarra began the class by clarifying what caviar is and isn’t. “Caviar is roe — the eggs — from sturgeon,” he explained. “Salmon roe is not caviar.”
Sturgeon, which have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, are the biggest of the freshwater fishes. The largest sturgeon, the endangered beluga of Eurasia, can reach a length of 24 feet and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. Even the smallest sturgeon species, which grows to about 3 feet long, is still pretty impressive.
Like salmon, sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they migrate from the sea to rivers to spawn. (Before 1900, the Atlantic sturgeon was so common in the Hudson River estuary that it was known as “Albany Beef.”)
Sturgeon are long-lived and slow to reach reproductive maturity. They typically don’t spawn for the first time until they’re 9 to 23 years old, and they spawn intermittently, so factors such as habitat loss in rivers and nursery grounds, disrupted migration routes because of dams, and poaching for black-market caviar are among the factors that have led one of the planet’s most legendary fishes into a serious heap of trouble.
And that is why Mr. Zamarra’s tutorial revolved not around the famed beluga, sevruga and osetra caviars of the Black and Caspian sea basins, but around delicious domestic options such as the caviar from wild hackleback (also called shovelnose) sturgeon and the closely related paddlefish (spoonbill). “They’re able to manage the fisheries well, so there is no overfishing,” he said. There are American sources of eco-friendly farmed sturgeon caviar as well, he added.
Mr. Zamarra’s classes give him a chance to indulge his longtime passion for supporting sustainable food sources and inform interested consumers, who, on this cold, blustery evening, ranged from a Brooklyn couple staying at the Sound View and a local pair looking for something new to do on “date night” to a renowned chef on a busman’s evening out.
And so what are the differences between the hackleback and paddlefish? We put down our champagne coupes and gathered around as the chef spooned out our first tastes.
To the eye, the paddlefish “berries” are small and range from green-gray to steel-gray in color. In the mouth, they’re firm and a little nutty, with the pleasing pop that caviar lovers crave. The hackleback berries are a bit larger and jet-black. They have a softer pop than the paddlefish, but are more intense and complex in flavor — reminiscent of sevruga, in fact.
I was not the only person in the room who found it difficult to choose a favorite, and it’s no wonder that these domestic caviars are increasingly seen on restaurant menus across the country.
While our glasses were being refilled with sparkling wine (Tocai Friulant Pétillant Naturel from Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton), Mr. Zamarra demystified the classic accompaniment to caviar: blini, the small Russian buckwheat pancakes that are leavened with yeast instead of baking soda.
“Buckwheat gives them a nice, hearty flavor,” he said, while beating his egg whites until they just held stiff peaks. “And the combination of beaten egg whites and yeast makes them plump up nice and thick.”
Judging by a quick look around the room, his deft demonstration of how to properly fold beaten whites into a batter rocked the world of several attendees, who will be better home cooks for it.
We spooned caviar on a warm blini, then chose from an array of classic garnishes that included minced shallots, chopped chives, créme fraîche and hard-boiled egg yolks that had been pushed through a sieve to make them fluffy and ephemeral.
And the questions started to come. The mother-of-pearl or bone spoons that are commonly used to serve caviar aren’t an affectation; they are used because metal gives caviar an off taste. Plastic spoons don’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi, but work just as well. Champagne is the time-honored partner for caviar, but if it or other sparkling wines aren’t up your alley, try vodka, chenin blanc, chablis — even a light beer like a Saison.
Caviar on top of freshly made blini is hard to beat, but there are other ways to enjoy it. Mr. Zamarra uses it as a garnish, for instance, spooning it on an oysters to add luxe and an extra little hit of brininess.
“Or warm up some créme fraîche, add a little vodka and the caviar, and make a sauce for fish,” he suggested.
Or do as I do: Warm some good-quality potato chips in a 350-degree oven, then top with créme fraîche and caviar. It’s the perfect excuse to celebrate something.
Wild hackleback and paddlefish/spoonbill caviars are available from online sources, and Braun Seafood in Cutchogue carries the spoonbill variety from Browne Trading Company (1 oz/ $32).
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg, separated
Vegetable oil for brushing pan
Garnishes: minced shallots, chopped chives, créme fraîche, lemon wedges and/or egg yolk pushed through a sieve
Combine the flours, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour milk into the well and mix until smooth. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.
Stir butter and egg yolk into the mix. Beat egg white with a whisk until stiff peaks form. Fold white into the batter and let stand 20 minutes.
Heat a sauté pan or griddle over medium heat and brush lightly with oil. Working in batches, drop quarter-sized dollops of batter into pan and cook, turning once, until puffed and golden brown on each side.
Serve with caviar and garnishes. Make ahead: Blini may be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped in foil. Reheat blini, still in the foil, in a low oven until heated through.