Caviar for the common folk

There's something almost magical about caviar, even if it's just a few dots on top of a lowly deviled egg. Fortunately for the masses, caviar is no longer quite the symbol of privilege it once was. Of course there is still the fresh Russian and Iranian beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, which lightens the wallets of those who can afford it. But even the modestly priced whitefish and lumpfish varieties carry an aura of luxury and elegance.

A small portion of lumpfish roe -- classically served on ice and accompanied by thin slices of toast, sour cream, chopped onions, and hard-boiled eggs (chopped whites and sieved yolks), garnished with a few lemon wedges -- will set you back as little as $3.95 a 7-ounce jar, as opposed to $50 or more for just two ounces of fresh beluga.

The Food and Drug Administration dictates that only sturgeon eggs be sold as simply caviar. Roe from any other fish must be clearly identified on the label. Whitefish, lumpfish, and salmon are the most popular. With these, manufacturers have to talk ``caviar,'' not caviar.

Most supermarket chains stock some kind of caviar not far from the canned tuna. This wasn't always so. Although true sturgeon caviar is not considered either salty or ``fishy,'' cheaper varieties are usually heavily salted and often dyed, either red or black. It is best to taste these and decide if they should be rinsed in a fine sieve before being served or used in a recipe.

Remember, too, that caviar dyed black or red tends to run when mixed with other food and sauces. It's best to sprinkle these on, say, sour cream, or mix them just before serving. Tricolor Caviar Pie 1 large sweet onion, finely chopped Butter 6 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped 3 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 8-ounce package cream cheese 2/3 cup sour cream 3 2-ounce jars of various-colored caviars Parsley, finely chopped

Allow onion to drain on paper towels for at least 30 minutes. Butter bottom and sides of 8-inch springform pan. Combine chopped eggs with mayonnaise and spread evenly in bottom of springform pan. Top with chopped onion.

Combine softened cream cheese with sour cream and carefully spoon over onions. Spread evenly with wet knife. Chill several hours or overnight. Before serving, drain caviar and spoon circles of each color artistically over top of pie. Sprinkle parsley around caviar circles. Run damp knife around edge of pan and remove to serving dish. Lobster Newburg With Salmon Caviar Two 6 1/2-ounce packages frozen lobster Newburg 1/2 cup light cream 12 ounces thin pasta, fettuccine or linguine 1 4-ounce jar salmon caviar 2 whole scallions (green onions) chopped

Defrost Newburg in refrigerator overnight, or at room temperature. Remove from pouches and place in pan with cream. Heat until it comes to the boil. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to instructions on package. Drain. Combine pasta with hot Newburg and half the caviar. Toss gently. Turn into warm serving bowl. Top with scallions and remaining caviar. Serve immediately. Serves 6. Caviar Omelet 3 eggs Dash of salt Dash of freshly ground pepper 1 tablespoon water 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons sour cream 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) caviar Sour cream, chives and/or parsley for garnish

Beat together eggs, salt, pepper, water. Heat butter to bubbling in 9-inch skillet. Add eggs. Cook over medium heat, lifting cooked portion of eggs to allow uncooked eggs to flow underneath. Spoon 2 tablespoons sour cream and caviar across half of top of omelet. Fold over other half and slide onto warm plate. Garnish with more sour cream and chives or parsley. Makes 1 generous or 2 modest servings.

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