Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

August - September 2007
© 2007 by Bret S. Beall


I recently returned from a road trip to Collins Caviar, located in a charming old warehouse off a cobblestone street in Michigan City, Indiana. I had visited my friend Rachel Collins at this facility about a year ago when I stopped to pick up some caviar for a celebratory escape to southwestern Michigan with a friend. This return trip again was all about celebration, and Rachel's energy and culinary caviar creations coupled with Carolyn Collins' addictive smile and welcoming persona emphasized the celebratory, yet accessible, nature of caviar.

Because so many of my writings are about living in the present, about celebrating everything, about minimizing the emphasis on any particular day for celebrations, I thought I'd devote an entire column to caviar, to celebration, and to camaraderie. All of those are contained in the fact that this column is an interview with my longtime friends Carolyn and Rachel Collins, that mother-daughter dynamic duo who have put Collins Caviar on the culinary forefront in America (apologies to my readers outside the US, but I hope this column inspires you to seek out comparable celebrations in your own countries).

American caviar is the preserved roe of a variety of fish species (outside the United States, caviar is strictly sturgeon roe). American caviar includes the roe of sturgeon, paddlefish, salmon, whitefish, bowfin, trout, and others. The preservation is usually accomplished with salt, and accented sometimes with other flavors. The key is a gentle hand with handling of the roe and with the seasoning, and Carolyn, Rachel and their entire team are adept with their gentle hands, emphasizing the flavor of the roe, and not overpowering it with salt or other flavors.

BSB (Bret S. Beall): Carolyn, Rachel, I've appreciated your friendship for years. You have shared so much with me over the years, and I truly appreciate your sharing your time and knowledge with me in this interview. Thank you!

RC (Rachel Collins): You're welcome.

CC (Carolyn Collins): I feel as if that's my job. I feel as if that's why I've been given this time on the earth to bring some joy and pleasure to others. I've done so many different things, I've raced both airplanes and sled dogs, have done scuba diving, and on and on; I'm one of those "jacks of all trades" people. Caviar has held me down longer than anything.

BSB: Let's start at the beginning. What I love about the Collins Caviar story is that it is a rather unique synthesis of a hobby, a "waste-not/earth-friendly" mindset, a creative spark, excellent taste, and a fortuitous connection or two. Would you care to elaborate for my readers, including a discussion of your experience with caviar prior to creating your own?

CC: My caviar experience was absolutely limited until I went to Europe where I was lucky to taste Russian and Iranian caviar, and I'd just buy some and eat it. When I came back to the US, I had friends who were the kind of people who put out bowls of caviar at parties. I only learned to appreciate it pretty much as an adult. I certainly didn't grow up with it, because my family's restaurant was family style, not a "gourmet" restaurant. Back in the 20s through the 70s, caviar was found almost exclusively in upscale hotels and supper clubs. The new American cuisine sort of hit the American culinary scene just about the time I started making caviar as a hobby in the early 1980s. We were fishing, and made caviar from the roe of the salmon we caught, the Italian attitude of "waste not, want not," "live off the land," "make use of everything that nature has to offer." I offered some to John Stoltzman of the now-defunct Winnetka Grill, and he loved it. It was the right time and place. John knew everyone in the PR business, and he got me into newspapers and magazines. This was the time that many were creating their new American cuisines. After the first year was up, John said, "You have to go out and solicit new customers." The Ninety-Fifth (currently, the Signature Room on the 95th floor) in the Hancock Tower, Gordon, and Ambria were my first three customers at that time; in 25 years our caviar has never been off the menu at the Ninety-Fifth/Signature Room, and Ambria were very faithful, too. It was a stroke of lucky then, just as the buzzword today is "artisan, artisan, artisan," and that's what we are. That's how it all started.

RC: My experience with caviar was extremely limited. Not much at all. However, my experience with homemade foods was rather good in general, due to Carolyn's exposing the whole family to them. I was not immersed in the field, but I was also not unaware. Once we were in the industry, my knowledge really got very broad. I'm still a major advocate of American caviar, and that's what we've always been, and always will be, restricting ourselves to American produce. After very quickly becoming an expert in the caviar field, I knew what American could be, while many others did not.

BSB: I'd like to discuss procurement of your roe. I know a lot of people are under the misconception that when the roe is harvested, the rest of the fish is wasted. Could you discuss your own procurement practices, including the geographic sources of your roe, and perhaps compare that with the caviar industry in general?

RC: All of the roe that we work with comes from commercial fisheries that are producing fish for the dinner table. In a sense, we are being an even greener producer by using what was previously considered a disposable by-product. In fact, some large commercial fisheries still throw away their roe, which would make perfectly delicious caviar, because they are too mechanized. We currently get our roe from coast to coast, all over the US.

CC: Another misconception is that we actually get the fish. No, we get the roe from the people who harvest the fish for commercial sales. There is no fish in the caviar industry that is taken solely for its eggs and then tossed aside. The fish are taken for food, and the eggs are a by-product that we use. When I was sailing through the West Indies with a friend, I loved to get the flying fish sandwiches on the beach; that's where tobikko caviar comes from (by the way, we don't make the tobikko ourselves; it's made by the Japanese; we buy it in bulk, and give it an extra cleaning). Mr. Azuma, one of the biggest importers in America, came to my office one day, maybe in 1989, with his interpreter. He told me that his customers had been asking him to make flavored caviar; at that time, he was only making the orange caviar. I told him a) his caviar was too salty, and b) it had too many other ingredients, like wine vinegar, MSG, and soy sauce, and that I would be willing to help him develop flavors. He replied through his interpreter, "No, I will think of something of my own." One year after that, he hit the market with the very popular wasabi tobikko, which isn't even made with wasabi, but with mustard and horseradish. One could say that I am responsible for wasabi tobikko. He's since come out with other flavors, that all copied my own flavors, which is the greatest form of flattery. First and foremost, the thing that people are crazy about is sturgeon, sturgeon, sturgeon. In the 19th century, the US was the largest producer of sturgeon eggs for caviar in the world, and supplied the eggs of Acipencer fulvescens (the lake sturgeon) that populated the entire North American continent. There are 26 species of edible caviar-bearing surgeon. They're all from the northern hemisphere, and each one produces a different size, color and flavor of egg. In Montana, they have a program where fishermen who snag sturgeon with eggs can donate the eggs to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and sales of that roe support fish and wildlife programs. It would be great if sport fisherman could sell the eggs in every state. We need to utilize what the sports fishermen obtain.

BSB: You offer a wide range of caviar types, from what I would term "natural" to various flavored caviars. Could you talk us through the sequence of additions to your line of caviars, and discuss the creative process for introducing new flavors and varieties of caviar?

RC: The very first of course was the salmon caviar, traditional and classic, simply cured with salt, followed by Great Lakes trout, and then whitefish. Our geographic headquarters in and around Chicago naturally led to our using the local resources.

CC: I started flavoring caviar by a happy accident. I was making at that time the very best sturgeon, very best paddlefish, clean whitefish, and we did some trout caviar, too. We were in competition with other companies that had more money that we did, so we had to do something to stand out. I had a friend who had a Mexican restaurant, and she made salmon caviar between lunch and dinner service. One time, the flavor and aroma from nearby frying chilés got into the caviar. It was wonderful, and that inspired me to put out whitefish caviar flavored with chilé. We were offering caviar in the snow at the Gran Marnier® chefs' ski races; the importing company also imported Absolut®, and had just introduced their Peppar®; they gave me permission to use the registered name, Absolut Peppar®, for the chilé caviar. Then they came out with Citron®, and I developed Citron® caviar. I just started experimenting. I like natural flavors. For example, the ginger caviar from other companies is like candy, while mine is like biting into the fresh root itself.

RC: The chilé caviar led to our creating more and more flavors at the request of chefs and others in the industry.

CC: I've always tried to keep the eggs as close to the way they come out of the fish as possible. That's why my salmon caviar bursts with liquid, just like a fresh salmon egg does; other companies have leathery, jellylike salmon roe, and that's not natural. The same thing goes with the whitefish: I want it to have a nice, crisp consistency, not to be gooey or runny. The natural flavors, like the sturgeon and paddlefish, also have to be as close to the original eggs as possible. When people buy beluga, often at thousands of dollars a pound, it so often has crushed eggs because it was not well done, so then they cover it up it up with onion and other flavors that are unnecessary when you have excellent caviar. There's nothing quite like caviar when it's well done and fresh.

BSB: Caviar is a very delicate and perishable product. Some caviar producers use huge amounts of salt and other ingredients to preserve their product. Could you discuss your quality standards and goals with regard to flavor, regulation adherence, avoiding contamination avoidance, and offering caviar from local, seasonal sustainable roe? How does your product differ from that of other producers?

CC: This is correct. We don't pasteurize, we don't vacuum pack, and we don't add preservatives. We freeze it. You can only freeze any caviar within a certain amount of time of it being processed. That's why there's this big warning about not freezing caviar, but you can freeze it when it's fresh. Our motto is that we freeze it to keep it fresh. People are shocked when I give them a heaping teaspoon and it looks like osetra, the eggs are beautiful, and they love it, and then I tell them that it's been frozen for six months. They are shocked.

RC: the biggest difference really begins with the fact that we are such an artisanal producer. Commercial caviar production has suffered from the same dynamic that many other processed foods do: which is to say that once a food reaches a certain popularity in the marketplace, processors and manufacturers try to figure out how to make it into a monoculture which can be cheaply produced, processed, and packaged so that it will flow through conventional channels to the consumer. This has happened with caviar to an extent. The large-scale fisheries in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, particularly salmon roe producers, move it out by the metric ton. It's fast, not thorough, highly salted, and processed in machines. Thereby making it a cheap commodity item. We will never do that with caviar. We choose to purchase our raw materials from smaller independent fisheries and fisherpersons, and are willing to take the time to hand process our product. The result is of course going to be more expensive, but in the end, as with everything, don't you really get what you pay for? We adhere to strict HACCP procedure (super duper sanitation plan); it's a good idea, and we answer to the FDA, and in 24 years of business have never had any issue or recall. We must be doing something right.

BSB: What advice do you have for readers who might want to make their own caviar? Is it worth the time commitment?

RC: That's really up to the fisherperson. If you're the kind of person who really enjoys making your own marmalade, or the kind of person who has your own homemade chicken stock in ice cubes in your freezer, then making homemade caviar is for YOU. You must be willing to roll up your sleeves, and possibly have some bad results, to achieve the end result you are looking for, but it CAN be done. Your readers may be able to find recipes by going a Google search, but our recipes are proprietary.

CC: It also depends on what kind of fish the readers are catching. With shad, perch and all of the other panfish that spawn in the spring, just take the roe in the skein and fry it in a little garlic butter. If you are fishing for salmon, you need to figure out how to open the skein, and then take a spatula to get the eggs out and separate them from the cords, but it's definitely worth it because the roe so fresh. I know chefs who go out fishing, get the fresh eggs, and just add salt to the eggs right there. I do not recommend trying to make caviar out of anything that comes out of the belly of a fish from the market; the eggs aren't fresh enough.

BSB: Let's discuss the various uses and applications of caviar. I'll admit my personal bias that, in general, I tend to be a purist. When I enjoy your caviar, I tend to go for the natural flavors like hackleback sturgeon, paddlefish, and now the bowfin, on some good artisanal bread, spread perhaps with some unsalted butter, so that I can get the "pure" caviar flavor. I also like to add a dollop of these caviars, and your smoked whitefish caviar, to various seafood dishes, like simply pan-seared sea scallops, or fish poached in a court bouillon, for dinner, or some fried trout with fried eggs for a truly spectacular and luxurious breakfast. But you use caviar in any number of applications. Could you provide some theoretical guidelines and advice on incorporating your caviars into one's lifestyle?

CC: Due to the variety of flavors that we have, we create entire menus, entire dinners with caviar in every dish and course, from appetizers to dessert. I have done homemade ice cream with mango or ginger caviar; the eggs will pop. Or consider a poached pear with French vanilla inside, with the whole thing drizzled with mango or ginger caviar ... it's just wonderful. We like to serve caviar on vegetables, as opposed to crackers, so there's no extra salt or carbohydrates. English cucumbers don't have a lot of seeds, so they are wonderful with any, ANY caviar; put some caviar on a slice of English cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash, or French/Belgian endive; there's something magical about celery and Citron caviar, the lemon is great.

RC: Absolutely. The best way to start is to take a recipe that you already know you enjoy with your family and friends, and then augment it with caviar. For example, if you are a fan of oysters on the half shell, instead of just serving them with cocktail sauce, try serving them with a wasabi tobikko vinaigrette instead. I think a great way to start to expand your own caviar lexicon is to look through caviar recipes on the Collins Caviar website (www.collinscaviar.com), or others, and then think of applying caviar in a more conceptual fashion. Consider the broad strokes of flavor, as opposed to a line-by-line recipe execution.

BSB: One of the coolest things I've learned about your caviar is that it can be frozen. I can say that the option of freezing caviar has allowed me to purchase your products, share them with guests, and then refreeze them for future use. I'm sure you might cringe at refreezing, but it works for me, and it allows a luxury product to be used frugally. Finally, if readers want to buy your product, what do they need to do?

CC: When you do re-freeze caviar, take plastic wrap and press it down onto the eggs before refreezing to avoid oxidation; oxidation is the danger when refreezing. Readers can order the caviar by calling Collins Caviar 800.715.4034 or 219.809.8100 or faxing an order form to 219.809.8105, or visiting online at www.collinscaviar.com. We take credit cards in complete confidence over the phone. We will ship to anyone anywhere for any occasion: Christmas, holidays, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, everyday. We'll ship a box with a gift card for any occasion. Personal information is NEVER shared.

RC: My recommendation is that, due to the fact that our caviars must be shipped by overnight service, and since we have a flat handling fee per box, it's an ideal opportunity to buy several smaller jars of caviar and keep them in your freezer so they are there whenever the creative culinary impulse strikes, or company arrives.

BSB: You've both shared an amazing amount of your vast knowledge of caviar and cuisine. Do you have any additional comments about caviar in general, Collins Caviar in particular, or anything else that you'd care to share?

CC: Yes, we have worked for 25 years to convince people that caviar is a year-round garnish and treat. Sturgeon caviar with soft-boiled eggs for breakfast is great. We would love to have people using caviar all-day, everyday, all-year round. It's not just for Christmas or New Year's Eve. Tailgate parties and caviar are great. Beer with nachos topped with sour cream and dollops of bowfin is amazing. People should learn to enjoy it every day; not just special occasions or holiday. It might seem expensive, but if you are going to just garnish some deviled eggs, you can garnish a couple dozen eggs with just one ounce of caviar. People should not be frightened by the price because it takes so little to get the wonderful pronounced flavor. You can always add a little crème fraiche or sour cream that helps it go a bit further. We even know professional chefs who only use a few eggs on each serving of a dish because the highly flavored eggs have such great impact.

RC: My only wish is that our beloved caviar clientele were a little more receptive to using caviar at all times of the year, rather than only the holidays. Why not celebrate the fact that it's a Thursday night in August? One ounce, less than a $20 investment, can garnish caviar pasta for four (see recipe below). That's less than a decent bottle of wine (which will accent the caviar pasta really well).

BSB: Thank you. I can hardly wait until my next celebration that incorporates Collins Caviar.

As you can see, Collins artisanal caviar is a wonderful, flexible, affordable product that can add a sense of luxury to your daily and/or celebratory life. It's all about having the right mindset, knowing you deserve quality ingredients in your daily life, and then having the courage to try different applications. As additional incentive to use caviar, be aware that www.calorie-count.com cites caviar's good points as having no sugar, high levels of 1) calcium, 2) pantothenic acid, 3) phosphorus, 4) riboflavin, and 5) vitamin A, plus very high levels of 1) iron, 2) magnesium, 3) selenium, and 4) vitamin B12; alleged negatives include cholesterol and salt, but the cholesterol is actually Omega 3 fatty acids (the good stuff), and we already know that Collins Caviar is lower in salt than most caviars).

Below are two recipes featuring Collins Caviar (a pasta and a salad), both from Rachel Collins (and if you want a Summer Caviar Pasta recipe from me, subscribe to my free e-newsletter, as this recipe is featured as a Lagniappe Recipe, a bonus subscribers get in each newsletter). Try them, and if you want more help and guidance with caviar application, get in touch with me at 773.508.9208 or bret@god-dess.com. You won't regret incorporating caviar into your cuisine.

Crème de la Crème Caviar Pasta
©2007 Collins Caviar Company
(serves 4 people)

In separate large saucepan, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat until butter is melted; add minced shallots and cook on until translucent (do not brown). Add cream, bring to a medium boil and reduce to two-thirds original volume. Add chopped parsley and remove from heat. Let stand at back of stove to keep warm.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook to desired tenderness. While pasta is cooking, chop or tear the smoked salmon into roughly 1" pieces.

Drain pasta; do not rinse. Set sauce back on medium-high flame, add smoked salmon pieces and stir. Add drained pasta to sauce; toss well to coat and distribute sauce evenly. Divide into 4 large bowls, mounding up in the middle. Spoon one fourth of the caviar onto the center of each pasta mound. Garnish with sprigs of parsley & serve immediately with hot, crusty bread and a nice bottle of wine. Enjoy! (Carolyn adds that you can use leftover salmon prepared in other ways as a substitute for the smoked salmon).

Shrimp and Jicama Salad with Margarita Caviar
©2007 Collins Caviar Company
(serves 10 people, two filled tortillas per person)

Chop shrimp into marble-sized pieces. Place the shrimp in a non-reactive bowl with jicama and chopped cilantro; toss gently. In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, cumin, salt, black pepper, Old Bay Seasoning and lime juice; stir to combine as a sauce. Mix mayonnaise sauce into shrimp mixture gently but thoroughly. Wrap tortillas in foil and warm through in oven. Fill tortillas with salad, rolling tortillas into a cone, and securing each cone with a toothpick, or tying each with a strip of dried cornhusk for additional impact. Spoon a generous amount of Collins Margarita Caviar into the open end of each rolled tortilla and set on a service plate. Garnish with extra cilantro sprigs. Enjoy!