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~ Pass the Buckwheat Blini: We are Serving Caviar ~

IMG_8223"I'd rather have a hot dog than caviar."  That's how I feel about caviar, so, when I came across that quote by famed Colombian race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya, I had to share it.  Don't get me wrong, caviar is not on my 'foods I hate' list, I just like a long list of other things more, and, I love the humorous comparison.  From a perceived foodie standpoint, caviar vs. a hot dog is the difference between "classy" and "trashy", which makes me feel a bit naughty in a Groucho Marx sort of way.  That said, a lot of people adore caviar and all the ritualistic glitz and glamor associated with it, so, every now and then, on appropriate occasions, I serve it.  Why wouldn't I:

IMG_8230Serving caviar is (almost) as easy as serving hot dogs.

For a hot dog you need a roll to place it on and some condiments to top it with.  For caviar you need some form of bread to place it on and some condiments to accompany it.  That said, hot dogs, one of my favorite foods, usually get served as a meal at super-casual get-togethers and caviar usually gets served as an hors d'oeuvre at super-fancy ones.  While a great majority of people serve caviar for Christmas or New Years, in my house it's been a Thanksgiving tradition. It's festive and it sets the tone for the upcoming evening feast.  Everything can be prepped ahead of time, which frees me up for the "matters at hand" and everyone (sans me) loves it!  

Perfect for one of our busiest food holidays:  Thanksgiving!

IMG_8150A bit about caviar:  The word "caviar", lightly-salted roe (fish eggs), comes from the Turkish word "khavyar" and dates back centuries. There are many types of caviar, but "true caviar" comes from sturgeon, which has been a big part of the Middle Eastern and Eastern European diet for almost all of their history, and, caviar from the Caspian Sea and rivers of Russia has always been considered uber-premium.  Because I am not a lover of caviar, I'll let the aficionados and caviar connoisseurs supply the IMG_8188detailed characteristics concerning size, color, texture and taste.  That said, in order of high-end to low-end pricing, there four types of sturgeon caviar:  beluga, sevruga, oestra and ship.  Even the experts will tell you, when choosing caviar, let your palate, not the price, be your guide.  I am a prime example as I find some of the inexpensive caviar choices (the Japanese black tobiko roe and American Alaskan red salmon roe for example), more to my liking. Once upon a time in the Middle East and Europe, caviar was reserved for royalty and their guests.  Here in 19th century America, when our waters were full of sturgeon, salty caviar was sold cheap or served free in saloons to get customers to drink more beer!

IMG_8207A bit about caviar utensils and etiquette:  Just like fish and seafood, all caviar should be very fresh, so, purchase it from a reliable source within 1-3 days of serving it. Because heat and oxygen are caviars worst enemies, it should be kept refrigerated and unopened until just prior to serving it in a non-metallic bowl nestled in a larger bowl of cracked or crushed ice. Since metal affects the taste of caviar, caviar spoons are typically made of mother-of-pearl, bone, tortoise shell, glass, wood or plastic.

IMG_8202Unless it is being used as a garnish, caviar is served as an hors d'oeuvre.  It's meant to be eaten in 1/2 teaspoon portions, and, it's considered bad manners to heap more than that on each appetizer. 

As for what to drink with caviar, while I like fine French champagne as much as the next person, no self-respecting gal of Russian descent would ever serve her caviar with anything other than iced shots of the finest frozen Russian vodka available. "Nasdrovia!" "To health!"

My guidelines for creating a classic caviar service.

IMG_8240Don't get nervous, none of this is etched in stone.

IMG_8217It's all about the caviar baby, it's the star of the show, so, traditionally caviar is accompanied by items that will enhance its flavor, not interfere with it.  When it comes to the foil, meaning the bland, edible, bread vessel it will be placed atop, while toast points or water biscuits are perfectly acceptable, purists all agree that Russian buckwheat blini (small, 2"-2 1/2"-round yeast-risen pancakes) are considered classic.

My recipe ~ Please Pass the Caviar: Russian Buckwheat Blini ~ is in Categories 1, 12, 14 & 21

6a0120a8551282970b01b8d17a3fed970cEstimating how much caviar to buy: There are, give or take, 8-10, 1/2 teaspoon servings of caviar in 1 ounce.  That means, the 2-ounce jar of caviar pictured here should be enough to make 16-20 appetizers -- if everyone plays by the 1/2 teaspoonful rule.  I plan on 2 ounces of caviar serving 4 people.

Tip: Because caviar is best served opened fresh (within the hour) and chilled, I purchase a few smaller containers, rather than one large one, and refresh it as needed.  

IMG_8227What to serve with caviar:  Once you've decided on the foil (which in my case is always buckwheat blini), plan and prep the accompaniments. Sour cream (or creme fraiche if you are French), chopped hard-cooked egg (whites and yolks chopped and served separately), minced red onion and minced chives are mandatory.  I also include, for those not fond of caviar and to stretch the amount of caviar consumed, small chunks of pickled herring and thin slices of smoked salmon.  Other options, but not my favorites, are lemon wedges and capers -- acid and brine in conjunction with caviar is not my ideal cup of tea.

Pick up a linen cocktail napkin, a blini & build an appetizer:


Pass the Buckwheat Blini:  We are Serving Caviar:  Recipe yields instructions for buying and creating a classic/traditional caviar service.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; saucepan for hard-cooking eggs; caviar server; caviar spoon; set of small glass bowls and spoons; serving tray

6a0120a8551282970b01b8d1792626970cCook's Note:  On any Russian table, besides vodka, there will be always be sour cream ("smetana"), and, many times it will be mixed into a fresh salad -- Russians love salad ("salat").  If you chop the ingredients for my ~ Creamy Russian Cucumber & Radish Salad ~ small enough, place it in a small bowl, it's perfect to add to the caviar service. Get the recipe in Categories 4, 10, 12 or 14!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


~ Please Pass the Caviar: Russian Buckwheat Blini ~

IMG_8188For centuries, these small yeast-risen buckwheat pancakes have been traditional fare on the opulent "zakuska table" ("appetizer table") at important Russian gatherings and festive celebrations.  "Zakuska" literally means "little bite".  Stacks of them are served alongside iced bowls of pickled herring, smoked sturgeon, salmon, many types of caviar, aspics and pates. There are plenty of condiments too: tangy sour cream, finely-chopped eggs, onions, briny pickles and sauteed mushroom mixtures.  No one can eat just one blin (singular), so, make plenty, and, don't forget to freeze the Russian vodka as an accompaniment -- it's mandatory.

IMG_8003"Nasdrovia":  "to health" and "thanks for the food"!

Times have changed, and, even though the splendor and opulence of Czarist Russia is past, the zakuska table is still alive and well in Russian life.  Even in the poorest of households, the Russians are known for their hospitality and generosity to guests, even if you drop in unexpectedly.  The moment you enter a Russian home, small plates of food will be placed on the table and vodka will be poured.  As a guest, you are expected to take a taste of everything, and, even if you don't drink, be sure to take a sip. "Nasdrovia", meaning "to health", is not as much a Russian toast as it is a thank-you to the host and hostess for the food, drink and hospitality.

IMG_9045blin is a small 2 1/4"-2 1/2"-round, 1/4"-thick, 100% yeast-leavened griddlecake (resemblant of a small American pancake) made from a thick, spoonable batter of buckwheat flour, warm milk, melted butter, egg yolks and egg whites. Russian buckwheat blini are the classic foil for the classic caviar service with minced onions, sauteed mushroom mixtures and sour cream. Russian cuisine, no one else's, gets full credit for blini. You other Eastern Europeans can argue this point amongst yourselves all you want.  I won't.   That said, while blini resemble small, American "silver dollar" pancakes, they are not made like American pancakes.

If you aren't making blini with yeast (they are NEVER EVER made with baking powder or baking soda) and you are not using buckwheat flour: You ain't makin' real-deal Russian blini baby!

IMG_8006A bit about buckwheat flour:  Native to Russia, buckwheat is thought of more as a cereal, but, it's actually an herb that provides a rich source of vitamins and minerals to a poor population.  Buckwheat porridge, made from roasted groats* cooked in broth or water similarly to rice or bulgur, is the definitive peasant dish.  The seeds are milled to make buckwheat flour and its assertive, pungent flavor makes it a favorite addition to Russian baked goods.  

*Buckwheat groats, "kasha", are the hulled, crushed buckwheat kernels. Available in coarse, medium and fine grinds, both the flour and the groats are available in American specialty and health food shops.

Buckwheat flour + yeast = real-deal Russian blini. 

IMG_80212  cups milk, scalded*

2  packets dry yeast granules, not rapid-rise

1 1/2  cups buckwheat flour

1  tablespoon sugar

1  tablespoon salted butter, melted

3  jumbo egg yolks, at room temperature

3  jumbo egg whites, at room temperature

1/2  cup unbleached, all-purpose flour 

1  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_8025* A bit about scalding milk:  In many "old" recipes (recipes passed down from generation to generation), especially recipes for yeast doughs, milk is "scalded" prior to using it. Scalded milk is milk that has been gently heated to 182 degrees -- the temperature at which bacteria are killed, enzymes are destroyed and proteins are denatured.  These are recipes that were written for food safety prior to pasteurization (which accomplishes the first two but not the third -- denaturing the proteins). In the case of yeast doughs, it is wise to carry on the tradition of scalding milk because denatured milk proteins promote a better rise. Fast forward to present times.  Milk can successfully be scalded in the the microwave by heating it slowly.

IMG_8039~ Step 1.  To "scald" milk the old-fashioned way, in a 1-quart saucepan, place the milk.  Over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally and checking the temperature often, heat to 182 degrees.  This will take about 10-12 minutes.  Tiny bubbles will have formed around the perimeter but the mixture will not be simmering or boiling.  Remove from heat allow to cool to 80-85 degrees -- this cool down will take about 20-30 minutes.  Pour the 80-85 degree milk into a large bowl.

IMG_8051 IMG_8054~ Step 2. Stir the yeast into the warm milk.  Using a large rubber spatula, gradually stir in the buckwheat flour and sugar until just blended.  Do not over mix -- small lumps in the batter are desirable.  I know, it's disagreeable looking.

IMG_8067 IMG_8069 IMG_8071Cover bowl with plastic wrap and rise for 30-45 minutes.  Mixture will be doubled with large bubbles on the surface.

IMG_8081 IMG_8079~ Step 3.  In each of two medium bowls, separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one and the whites in the other. Set the egg whites aside.

~ Step 4.  On stovetop or in microwave, melt the butter and set aside.  On low speed of hand-held electric mixer, beat the egg yolks, gradually drizzling in the melted IMG_8088butter as you work.  When butter is thoroughly incorporated, gradually add and beat in the all-purpose flour and the salt.  The mixture, while sticky and wet, should look light and dry and resemble tiny, irregular flakes and crumbs.

~ Step 5.  Using the rubber spatula, fold the yolk mixture into the buckwheat batter mixture.  On medium IMG_8093speed of mixer, beat until well IMG_8090blended, about 1 minute, once again, ignoring any small lumps.  Do not over mix

Recover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter rise a second time until almost doubled in bulk, about 45 more minutes.

IMG_8099~ Step 6.  Clean the mixer blades and dry them thoroughly.  When the buckwheat batter mixture is looking like it is just about doubled in bulk, on high speed of mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  

IMG_8104Using the spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the buckwheat batter, using smooth but quick strokes.  Do not over mix.  Set aside about 5-10 minutes. 

IMG_8109~ Step 7.  Spray an electric skillet with no-stick and heat to 325 degrees.  Test heat by allowing a few drops of water to fall onto it.  If water bounces and sputters, heat is hot enough.  If water sits and boils, skillet is not hot enough.  Adjust heat accordingly.

IMG_8111~ Step 8.  To assure well-rounded blini, do not drop the batter onto the skillet from high.  Using a round-shaped tablespoon held close to the skillet's surface, roll a generous tablespoon of batter off the end of the tablespoon using your index finger to guide it.  The blini will be about 2 1/4"-2 1/2" in diameter. Cook one or two blini, as a test, before filling the entire skillet. Note: Don't overcrowd skillet -- I cook 12 at a time in my 16" electric skillet.

IMG_8125 IMG_8128~ Step 9. Once the blini are in the skillet, cook them for about 45-60 seconds, or until broken bubbles appear on their surface.  Using a thin spatula, gently check one or two to see how browned the first sides are.  If they are nicely golden, gently flip the blini and cook them an additional 20-30 seconds.  The second side will take about IMG_8134half as long as the first side to cook and will will not be evenly browned.  Using the spatula, transfer blini from griddle to cooling rack to coolcompletely.  Do not stack blini during cooling process as steam will make them soggy.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note:  To freeze blini, place completely cooled blini in an airtight container, interleaving each layer with wax paper.  Tightly seal container and freeze.  To reheat, place frozen blini, in a single layer  IMG_8119on a large baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Loosely cover with aluminum foil. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven until thawed and heated through, about 8-10 minutes.  Do not use a microwave to thaw or reheat blini as it will toughen their light, airy, delicate texture.

Meet 5 1/2-6 dozen Russian buckwheat blini...

IMG_8135... up close and personal!

IMG_8178Please Pass the Caviar:  Russian Buckwheat Blini:  Recipe yields 5 1/2-6 dozen, 2 1/4"-2 1/2"-round appetizer-sized blini 

Special Equipment List:  1-quart saucepan; instant read thermometer; large rubber spatula; plastic wrap; hand-held electric mixer; nonstick electric skillet; round tablespoon; thin spatula; large cooling rack

6a0120a8551282970b019104c636ac970cCook's Note:  Somewhere on the Russian table, besides vodka, there will be always be a bowl of sour cream ("smetana"), and, many times it will be mixed into a fresh salad too -- Russians love salad ("salat"), and, if thay have fresh vegetables, there will be a salad served with the meal.  You can find my recipe for ~ Creamy Russian Cucumber & Radish Salad ~ can be found in Categories 4, 10, 12 or 14!

"We are all in this food world together," ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 


~ My Favorite Tartar Sauce (For Fish and Seafood) ~

IMG_7996Tartar sauce can be bought at any and every grocery store.  They must sell a lot of it, because just yesterday I had to choose from, and bought, five jars of five different brands -- just for me to conduct a taste test before writing this.  The one that got top billing was our own local Wegman's brand.  Bookbinders came in second with Hellman's a distant third.  As for 4th and 5th places, "if one can't say anything nice, one shouldn't say anything at all", but it's my guess that when someone says they don't like tartar sauce, it's because they tried one of those two -- which tasted like mayonnaise with lemon and salt stirred into it.  That said, the one that stole the show was the one I've been mixing together for ages now, and, it takes less than 10 minutes to make, so, if you are buying tartar sauce in the name of convenience, it's time to rethink its purchase.

6a0120a8551282970b01b8d176fa3e970c 6a0120a8551282970b01b7c7ed2e68970bA bit about tartar sauce: Tartar sauce is a thick, rich, white mayo-based sauce that is typically served alongside or atop fish or seafood, however, it is quite delicious served with any number of raw or cooked vegetables -- including French fries.  The French invented it, calling it "sauce tartare", and, they start by making mayonnaise made from scratch, which by all means do if you have the time and/or expertise.  You can find my easy food-processor recipe, ~ How to:  Make Homemade Mayonnaise ("Mayo"), ~ in Categories 8 or 20.  When the classic egg yolk, lemon juice (or vinegar) and oil emulsion is complete, they simply add an herb (like chives, dill, parsley or chervil) some chopped gherkins and occasionally a minced shallot.

IMG_7776My recipe evolved over time, with the final "tweek" being:  I'm wed to adding dried or fresh dill (if it is in season) to the mixture.  It makes perfect sense, as dill pairs so well with fish and seafood.  Personally, I think that whatever tartar sauce recipe you are making:  mine, your grandmother's, a friend's or a stranger's, dill is the ingredient that really takes this simple recipe over the top!

IMG_7770For the tartar sauce:

1  cup mayonnaise

1/2  cup finely-diced sweet gherkins or sweet pickle relish or a cominbation of both, to taste

1/4  cup very-finely diced yellow or sweet onion, to taste

1  tablespoon lemon juice, preferably fresh

3/4 teaspoon dried dill weed

IMG_77771/2  teaspoon sugar

1/8  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_7783Step 1.  In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients as listed. Transfer to a food storage container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours or overnight prior to serving chilled.  Overnight is truly best, and, tartar sauce can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for about a week .

Throw a line in the water and hook up w/some fish or seafood ...

IMG_7782... poach, fry or broil it -- then top with or dunk in tartar sauce! 

IMG_7973My Favorite Tartar Sauce (For Fish and Seafood):  Recipe yields 1 1/2 cups tartar sauce.

Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 1-cup measuring container; large spoon; 2-cup measuring container w/tight fitting lid

IMG_7920 IMG_7950Cooks Note: Tartar sauce is classically served with beer-batter-dipped deep-fried "fish 'n chips", cod or crab cakes.  One of my favorite recipes, which would be a perfect appetizer to pass around at the upcoming Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, ~ Anchor-Deep Deep-Fried Shrimp w/Tartar Sauce ~, can be found in Categories 1, 2, 11, 14 or 17.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)