The gospel of caviar in four easy lessons: (1) it comes exclusively from Caspian Sea sturgeon; (2) it is always served plain on a lightly buttered toast triangle, perhaps with a lemon wedge; (3) it is eaten only as an appetizer or with cocktails; and (4) it is very expensive.
Enter Carolyn Collins and her daughter Rachel, two Chicagoans who have smashed these four commandments. For starters, instead of pricey Russian sturgeon, the Carolyn Collins Caviar Company uses North American freshwater fish–mostly salmon, bowfin trout, and whitefish, although lobsters and flying fish supply their eggs for a few Collins caviars. The closest thing the company makes to a traditional caviar comes from the American paddlefish, of all things, and is dubbed “Chattanooga Beluga.”
But the use of domestic roe isn’t the only thing that’s different about some of these caviars. Take for example “Caviar Peppar,” which Collins makes from golden-orange whitefish eggs as big as new peas, then infuses with Absolut Peppar vodka and red chili peppers, or “Caviar Citron,” made with citrus juices and oils and a shot of Absolut Citron vodka.
These nonconformist caviars originated in much the same way as the old TV ads claimed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups did: a Collins employee who also happened to own a Mexican restaurant was preparing a batch of caviar for Carolyn one day while a cook was frying some chili peppers nearby. When Carolyn first tasted the caviar she was outraged that the roe had absorbed the pepper flavor, but then she realized she’d stumbled onto something. Now the practice finds its quirky culmination in “La Grande Passion Liqueur Caviar,” salt-free roe infused with passion fruit, orange zest, and sweet liqueur and served as a dessert. (Although a sure-fire conversation starter, it probably won’t be ousting the ice cream sundae from American menus anytime soon.)
The Collinses figured that if they could soak the roe, why not smoke it–and so were born “Lone Star Caviar” and “Smoked Chicago Golden,” each smoked with different woods to impart a special flavor. Along the same lines, these iconoclasts have put out a recipe book, the first in an eventual series of six, which suggests such radical concoctions as caviar spaghetti, caviar and zucchini pancakes, and cheese enchiladas con caviar.
The reason for all this monkeying around, according to Carolyn, is to make caviar more accessible. “I’m tired of all the sacred cows in society, and that one in particular,” she says, referring to the long-held view of caviar as bound by a strict and narrow code of proper preparation and service. “Snobs in the industry consider us a joke,” she says, “but we’re selling a lot of caviar.”
She first began making caviar in her home as a hobby, using the roe of fish she had caught for sport. Friends encouraged her to go commercial, so she founded Collins Caviar in 1983 and started supplying caviar to the Winnetka Grill, a neighborhood restaurant. Egged on by favorable reaction, she expanded sales to the general public a year later.
Although Collins Caviar offers one-ounce jars for the home consumer, the company’s primary customers have been chic restaurants like Chicago’s Ambria, the 95th, and the Everest Room, which buy Collins caviar by the half-pound. Sales doubled every year for the company’s first five years, and even though the recession has taken some air out of the Collins balloon, business has remained steady over the past two years, with overall sales last year at 12 to 15 thousand pounds–or more than 200 thousand one-ounce servings.
“More and more chefs are using caviar in menu items,” Carolyn claims. “It’s a trend.” She cites, for example, the Saint Honore restaurant in West Palm Beach, which features smoked Collins caviar in a soft-boiled egg cup, and Michael’s in Santa Monica, which offers glamour-struck patrons a pasta dish topped with caviar in the shape of a Mercedes-Benz emblem.
The Collinses’ next project is to establish a roe-hold in the home-consumer market. In pursuit of this goal, Rachel (who is so devoted to caviar that she sports a three-inch-long tattoo of a leaping silver salmon on one ankle) recently developed a line of caviar butters–whipped butter with caviar and spices folded in. “While some home cooks may feel a bit intimidated working with caviar, everyone knows how to put butter on a baked potato,” she says. Caviar butter is also less expensive and has a longer shelf life than caviar alone. Collins Caviar is already selling its butter in Chicago’s Treasure Island Foods and Balducci’s in New York, and now it’s aiming for national supermarket chains.
While Collins caviar is certainly no low-budget alternative to cheddar-and-jalapeno dip, Carolyn notes that the use of domestic fish makes it “one-third the price of Russian beluga.” She’s looking forward to a day when bartenders offer bowls of “Caviar Peppar” instead of salsa to patrons watching Monday-night football–perhaps, as Carolyn calls it, “the ultimate chip dip.”
You can buy Collins caviar at the Treasure Island stores at 2121 N. Clybourn or 3460 N. Broadway; Di Cola’s Fish Market, 10754 S. Western; Foodstuffs, 2106 Central in Evanston; or Sunset Foods, 1812 Green Bay Road in Highland Park. You can also order it direct; to do that, call 226-0342.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.