A cherished delicacy in much of the world, fish roe is relatively underused in the United States. Admittedly the uncooked roe sacs look unsettling and lack the uncomplicated familiarity of boneless fillets, but the eggs are deeply flavorful and can form the centerpiece of a memorable meal in their own right. They require little cleaning and preparation, and can be cooked or cured in many ways.
Cleaning the Roe
Roe perishes unusually quickly, even compared to other forms of seafood, so buy it only from the most reliable fishmongers or harvest it from fresh-caught fish. The outside of the roe sacs will usually be smeared with blood and other detritus, so they need a quick cleaning before they're used. Rinse them under cold running water, then leave them to drain in a colander for a few minutes. At this point the roes can be cooked whole, inside their membranes, or you can carefully slit the sacs and turn the eggs out into a clean bowl. If necessary, scrape them free of the membrane with a spoon or the back of a knife blade.
The simplest way to prepare roe is to pan-fry it, as you would with the fish itself. Season the sacs with salt and pepper and dredge them in flour, then pan-fry them in a small quantity of oil or butter. It will have a rich flavor, and a texture ranging from creamy to grainy depending on the species of fish. It's often served with a squeeze of lemon juice or a garnish of capers, as a tart foil to its fatty richness. Alternatively, stir loose roe into your scrambled eggs -- or fold it into an omelet -- for an unusual but memorable brunch.
The French make a special poaching liquid for fish -- "court-bouillon" -- by simmering peppercorns and herbs in a mixture of water and wine vinegar. Roes poached gently in court-bouillon hold their shape after cooking, so they can be peeled and served as a dish in their own right with an appropriate sauce, or as a garnish or sauce ingredient on other entrees.
Using Cooked Roes
Cooked roe makes a rich and flavorful addition to sauces for fish and pasta, especially if you use the vividly colored "coral" from lobsters and crayfish. Alternatively, mash the poached roes with varying combinations of artisan mustard, fresh herbs, garlic and olive oil and use the mixture as a spread for canapes. A similar mixture is the basis of taramasalata, the fish-roe dip served in Greek restaurants. The eggs are cured in salt first and benefit from a cold-water rinse to tone down their salinity.
Turning any fresh roe into your own homemade "caviar" is a simple matter of soaking the loose eggs in brine for 20 to 30 minutes, then draining it and keeping it refrigerated. The cured eggs can be eaten the traditional way, from a spoon or on blini, or used as a garnish on canapes, pasta, fish dishes or sushi.