|Sea Urchin Virgins|
Lots of people on the web seem to be calling themselves "sea urchin virgins". The analogy is apt. To the uninitiated urchin looks scary, even dangerous. But try it once and it becomes an obsession. You must have it again and again. This short article is intended as an informative guide for those virgins.
Once the reserve of sushi bars and Italian restaurants, sea urchin is now everywhere. And that is a wonderful thing. The beautiful orange ‘meat' of this spiny marine creature has a satiny mousse-like texture and the most subtle flavor of the sea, almost like an oyster but far less salty, which delivers nutty sweetness and pure ocean flavor. So what exactly is sea urchin? Here is where I may lose some of you. Over and over in my research I was told that, although sea urchin is most often referred to as roe or eggs, it is in fact gonads. But what is a gonad? A quick Google search led me to the Wikipedia entry which has the audacity to begin: "The gonad is the organ that makes gametes." Thankfully a more helpful definition is then provided. My beloved sea urchin, it turns out, is the organ responsible for producing sperm or eggs. If this grosses you out stop reading now. Go back to eating your bologna on Wonder bread and forgo what just may be the most delicious thing on earth. That just leaves more for me!
Clearly I'm not alone in my love for sea urchin, which is often labeled by its Japanese name uni or the Italian ricci di mare. Over the past year or two it has become one of the trendiest items on menus all over the country. Two of my favorite ways to eat urchin are also the most classic: pristinely fresh pieces make great sashimi, and slightly mashed it becomes a delectable pasta sauce. Both of these are the epitome of simple sophistication. But great chefs take a good thing and make it even better. Sometimes this means tweaking the classics slightly: Naomichi Yasuda's Uni Sushi with Quail Egg and Rock Salt, Michael White's crostino of Sea Urchin, Lardo, and Sea Salt, and David Pasternack's Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Sea Urchin and Crabmeat are perfect examples. Other times more indulgence is called for. Eric Ripert is a master sea urchin-ologist. His Sea Urchin Roe on a Bed of Jalapeno - Wasabi Jam; Seaweed Salt; Wakame - Orange Scented Broth elevates the once humble creature, accentuating all of its complexity while adding touches of heat, sweetness, and acidity as counterpoints. His Linguine with Sea Urchin Sauce and Iranian Osetra Caviar, off the menu and immortalized in Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Food Porn special, is unparalleled in its luxury. In fact, this year's list of great sea urchin dishes reads like a lesson in opulence: Think of L'atelier de Joel Robuchon's Sea Urchin in Lobster Gelée Topped with a Cauliflower Cream, or Jean Georges' Santa Barbara Sea Urchin, Black Bread, Jalapeño and Yuzu, Picholine's Sea Urchin Panna Cotta, Chilled Ocean Consommé, Caviar, Morimoto's Oysters Foie Gras - Kumamoto Oysters, Foie Gras, Uni, Teriyaki Sauce, and Eleven Madison Park's Sea Urchin Custard with Green Apple and Shellfish Ragout.
Unlike restaurant chef's, home cooks seem to shy away from serving sea urchin. That is a shame because it is among the easiest things in the world to cook. It's great in scrambled eggs, or mixed into a compound butter alla Post House for steaks or fish. In fact, it's best when you don't cook it all. Here is a recipe to hammer in that point. Sea Urchin with Tuna, Lime, Sriracha, and Chestnut Honey. Sounds fancy, but nothing in this appetizer requires any cooking. The urchin's briny buttery-ness is accentuated by the meatiness of the tuna. The lime cuts the fattiness of the dish, as does the heat of the sriracha. I use chestnut honey for sweetness and a touch of smoky bitterness. And finally a sprinkle of almonds for crunch. Many chefs insist that the best urchin comes from Santa Barbara and Catalina Offshore Products is among the best purveyors.They will ship overnight by express mail for a twenty dollar fee. For those of us here in New York City, Sunrise Mart near Astor Place usually has trays of uni, shelled and ready for use, in stock. The more adventurous of you can get sea urchin in its shell from many of the city's fine fish mongers. Instructions for extracting the edible portion of the urchin, which is really quite simple, are available from the California Sea Urchin Commission.
Sea Urchin with Tuna, Lime, Sriracha, and Chestnut Honey.
1 pound Sushi-grade Tuna
1 teaspoon Sriracha Hot Sauce
3 tablespoons Cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoon Red Onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Capers, drained
Kosher Salt to taste
12 pieces Sea Urchin
Sriracha, for garnish
Cilantro leaves, for garnish,
Chestnut Honey, for ganish
Chopped Almonds, for garnish
1. Cut the tuna into small cubes, between a quarter and an eighth on an inch each.
2. In a large bowl combine tuna, sriracha, cilantro, red onion, capers, and salt. Mix well.
3. To serve divide the tuna mixture between four serving dishes. Try to shape the mass of tuna into a rectangle.
4. Place three pieces of sea urchin per plate, in a line, on top of the tuna.
5. Squeeze a small amount of lime juice on each piece of urchin.
6. Garnish each plate with dots of sriracha, being careful not to make the dish too spicy.
7. Scatter a small amount of cilantro leaves and almonds on each plate, and the drizzle sparingly with the chestnut honey; serve.
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