Just before the holidays, I received a bottle of Dom Perignon as a gift, and with New Year’s around the corner, I knew I wanted to enjoy it decadently, with some black caviar. I envisioned serving the caviar old-school style, with sour cream and sliced scallions. Now, caviar, as you may know, is basically the tiny eggs (or, as it’s sometimes called, the “roe”) of various fish, especially sturgeon and paddlefish. It turns out, though, that the populations of these fish have been brought to the brink of extinction because of intense demand for their eggs, and their natural habitats are in danger as well. So I set out to find a caviar with a good back story that I wouldn’t feel guilty about eating.
Before shopping, I consulted two online seafood guides: the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521. Both lists recommend buying U.S.-farmed sturgeon or paddlefish roe for two reasons: The farmed fish are not in danger of mixing with and contaminating wild populations, nor do they require being fed with wild fish. I went looking for farmed caviar from Oregon and Washington State.
I first went to an expensive gourmet chain store, which carries several different kinds of caviar. When I asked if their caviar was farmed, the man behind the seafood counter replied, “They’re all farmed! Caviar fish are on the verge of going extinct because we eat their eggs. You can’t trust what comes from Iran, but caviar from anywhere else is farmed.” He seemed quite knowledgeable about the situation, but none of the caviar he showed me was clearly labeled with information showing its origin and where it was farmed. I only wanted farmed caviar from the U.S., but that was impossible to verify, so I moved on.
My next stop was a national natural foods chain with a large seafood department. They had three kinds of caviar, and when I asked whether it was farmed, they told me with assurance that it was all wild. What?! Indeed, all of the jars I looked at clearly said “wild.” Due to the exorbitant price of an ounce of caviar, it wasn’t hard to walk away empty-handed. I moved on, resolved that I would have to go faux—it was the only way to know what I was buying. I went in search of hijiki seaweed, a black sea vegetable used often in Japanese cuisine that tastes mildly fishy. Vegans have been making a substitute for caviar out of it for years. I had never really tried, but I was left with no choice.
I found my hijiki at a wonderful Japanese food store in the East Village that boasts a large sea vegetable selection. I picked out the hijiki easily, and when I spotted the $3.99 price tag, I knew I’d made the right choice. Back at home I pulled out my main flavor instigators: rice vinegar and salt. My sweetheart is a man with an incredibly discerning palate, who doesn’t suffer vegan substitutes gladly, so I knew I’d have to amp up the acidity (with the vinegar) and the saltiness to pull it off. The final essential element – fat – would come later, in the form of sour cream.
The final result was a ringing success, and I owe most of it to the salt. I made my hijiki caviar and salted it well, and then salted each individual serving much more than I normally would, to really evoke that briny, salted roe taste. We both agreed that the taste was uncanny, and set off by the bright champagne, the disguised sea vegetable was sweet, salty, and creamy. The only thing missing was the “pop factor” of fish eggs. I’m not sure how to resolve that one, but I’ll keep trying. So for your next caviar worthy occasion, perhaps Valentine’s Day or that special someone’s birthday, spend your money on a top-shelf champagne, and save a buck (or $100) on the caviar and make this earth-friendly version.
Recipe: Hijiki Caviar
Makes approximately 1 cup caviar
1/4 cup hijiki seaweed
2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, plus extra
For serving: Sour cream, scallions, freshly squeezed lemon juice, toast points/blinis/crackers
Soak the hijiki in cold water for 1 hour. Drain well and place it in the bowl of a food processor. Grind until the hijiki is broken down into caviar sized bits, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and add the vinegar, honey, and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt. Stir well and cover. Let the hijiki marinate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.
When you’re ready to serve, pour the hijiki through a fine mesh strainer to remove excess liquid. Place a small spoonful of caviar on a toast point and top with sour cream and scallions. Season generously with salt, and a dash of lemon juice.