Throughout history, people have tried to turn lead into gold, either in actuality or metaphorically. When we think of Welsh Rabbit (melted cheese), Bombay Duck (dried fish), or Scotch Woodcock” (chopped hard-boiled eggs and cream on toast), it’s usually a rare or expensive ingredient replaced ingeniously by something more plebeian. Sometimes this is done with larcenous intent — but that’s outside the scope of this article, somewhat depressing, and hardly in the spirit of the holiday season.
Instead, we’re going to look at some whimsical substitutions for one of the rarest and most expensive of comestibles: caviar.
Real caviar is the roe of various fishes, the most precious of which is Beluga — the lightly salted eggs of mature sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. As only 100 of these antediluvian creatures are harvested each year, the price is understandably high. While most of us won’t be bellying up to big bowls of Beluga as part of this New Year’s Eve’s festivities, there are a number of alternative caviars to tempt us.
“Kaviar” is a Russian surrogate made from soybeans, while a Japanese manufacturer (Hokuyu Company) makes “Cavianne.” The most convincing of these fakes is made in Canada: Kelp Caviar comes in several flavors (truffle, salmon, chile and wasabi). The tiny “eggs” are made from agar-agar-rich powdered kelp that has been flavored, cooked and stabilized as a thick gelatinous liquid. The liquid then drips into a solution of calcium chloride that causes it to form smooth firm “pearls” — a process that molecular gastronomers call “spherification.”
Our own recipes are somewhat less high-tech, and don’t require any odd chemicals or weird-science lab equipment.
In Turkish, “havyar” is “salted roe,” a name clearly related to “caviar.” “Havyar” is also connected, etymologically, to “Ajvar” — a beautifully-colored, and fragrant, paste made of roasted red peppers and garlic. Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
6 lbs. red bell peppers
1 large eggplant
1/2 head garlic, peeled and chopped
olive oil , vinegar, salt and pepper, hot paprika or cayenne to taste.
Roast each pepper, under broiler or over a flame, until skin is blackened. Place peppers in a bag or covered bowl to steam for a few minutes, then rub off blackened skin.
Split eggplant lengthwise, score the cut surfaces lightly, then rub cut surface with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.
Roast eggplant in a hot oven for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
Scoop the cooked eggplant from the skin, which can then be discarded. Combine eggplant, garlic, and two tablespoons olive oil in a food processor. Pulse to chop only — the mixture should not be completely smooth. Set it aside in a large bowl.
Remove stems and seeds from peppers, then pulse in a food processor until they are coarsely chopped. Combine eggplant and peppers, and adjust flavor with salt, pepper, vinegar, and hot paprika (or cayenne), to taste.
Serve with toasted slices of baguette or pita.
This counterfeit caviar looks a lot more like the real thing, and even bears a slight (and totally unexpected) resemblance to the briny sea-taste of caviar — but with an Asian twist. Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
1/2 Cup uncooked tapioca pearls (not instant)
1/4 Cup dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp. Chinese black vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
1 scallion, sliced thinly on a diagonal, for garnish
Cook the tapioca pearls in two quarts of boiling water until translucent, with just a tiny opaque spot in the middle. Drain and drop into cold water to stop cooking.
Prepare marinade by combining all remaining ingredients (except the scallion).
Mix tapioca with marinade in covered container, and set aside in refrigerator for at least four hours, mixing gently from time to time.
Serve in Chinese soup spoons, garnished with a few tiny pieces of scallion.
This offering looks nothing like caviar, and has flavors one would never encounter around the Caspian Sea, but it is called “caviar” by the folks who make it in their home kitchens. They’ve been making it, in various forms, so often that it’s become a party standard. How it got its name is a little mysterious, but the natives of the region do have something of a reputation for tall tales, exaggeration, or downright mendacity (at least when dealing with those of us who come from places north of the Red River). Serves 4 – 6 as an appetizer
1/2 lb. dried black-eyed peas, cooked, cooled and drained
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 jalapeño or serrano chiles, seeded and minced
1 small onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
6 Tbsp wine vinegar
6 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp oregano
1/2 Tbsp cumin, toasted and ground
Tabasco, optional, to taste
salt & black pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl.
Cover and place in refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
Adjust seasonings to taste, with additional vinegar, Tabasco, salt and pepper, as needed. Serve with tortilla chips.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us