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Fiery ghost pepper and subtle caviar highlight the 2010 Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival

ST. PETE BEACH — The ghost pepper is the hottest in the world, smoking the Scotch bonnet and measuring clean at the top of the Scoville heat scale. Not surprisingly, Louisiana hot sauce makers took note of this scorching discovery. What would happen if the flavor of these peppers was infused into Louisiana choupique caviar?

Tampa Bay foodies found out Saturday at the fourth annual Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival held at the Don CeSar Beach Resort. Hosted by Southern Wine & Spirits of Central Florida, the weekend included high-energy parties, wine tastings, a beach bash and educational seminars and demonstrations. In white tents set up on the beach, attendees ditched their shoes and sipped and nibbled their way through the warm afternoon.

In one of the Publix Apron's Cooking School demonstration kitchens, Kendall Gensler walked festivalgoers through the preparation of Louisiana blue crab and Brie bisque with ghost pepper caviar garnish. In between adding the butter and cream, she explained about her home state's choupique caviar. These prehistoric fish — also called bowfin or shupik, a Choctaw word meaning mudfish — have been a source of caviar in Louisiana since 1986. Once their roe has been harvested, the rest of the fish is used for fish cakes and other delicacies.

This caviar typically has naturally black to dark gray eggs and a delicate flavor most similar to Russian osetra caviar from the Caspian Sea (a product banned due to overfishing). Cajun caviar has less than 5 percent salt content and has ranked in tastings up with some of the world's finest malossol caviars. The ghost pepper infusion process, begun just this year, is a trade secret closely guarded by the Louisiana Caviar Co. in Baton Rouge

Gensler, editor of Culinary Concierge magazine (based in Louisiana but recently launched in the Tampa market), is also a trained chef and a judge for the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. As she served up bowls of rich crab soup, she explained that at this year's New Orleans festival, which takes place at the end of this month, ghost pepper caviar is featured in one of the gold medal dishes, crawfish gnocchi with ghost pepper caviar cream. At the Don CeSar, attendees let the oily beads pop on their tongues to release a lush, slow-burn brininess.

After Gensler's demo, chef Nathan Lippy took the stage. A dynamo with a two-toned pinwheeling faux-hawk, Lippy, 28, is a Tampa native who works within a Floribbean idiom. With technique gleaned from his formal education at the Culinary Institute of America, Lippy walked attendees through a bold salad marrying arugula, bacon and caramelized avocado. Using his own lexicon (food was "gorgimous," explanations were punctuated with "Whattup?!!"), the young chef sauteed chicken breasts blushed with chipotle and cinnamon, then paired them with a fresh slaw dressed in a tequila and lime vinaigrette.

After a nibble, festival attendees wandered off to investigate demos in other tents, the thump of dance music and the waft of red wine lending an air of jollity. And when thirst was slaked and appetites satisfied, Tampa Bay gastronomes sank their toes in the sand and gazed out at birds wheeling across the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.

Fiery ghost pepper and subtle caviar highlight the 2010 Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival 05/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 6:16pm]
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