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Some people like fuzzy mittens and making snow angels. Me, not so much. One of the few things I enjoy about winter (specifically, October to March) is that sea urchin is in season from Maine. But there was a time when I knew nothing of "uni," as the Japanese call its roe, which is the edible portion. Kind of like the first time smoking pot, most people recount their initial sea urchin experience as naive and awkward. With the former, there is coughing and anti-climax, while with the latter, gagging is a distinct possibility. My introduction came at the urging of my sister, eight years my senior and always right.
We were at Iso, where all my early sushi training took place. (Sadly, Iso the restaurant is no more, though some of Isos impeccably trained sushi chefs are reinstated at Koi, in the same location.) Carla ordered two pieces of "uni with quail egg." What was handed to us by Iso himself was foreigna pale pumpkin-colored wobble with a microscopically bumpy surface texture similar to a tongue, over rice, wrapped in nori. On top was a raw quail egg yolkGod forbid it should break before you figure out how to fit the whole thing in your mouth.
There are two common problems when uni hits virgin taste buds; namely flavor and texture. Fresh high quality sea urchin is just firm enough to stay together, like pudding with an imperceptible skin. It quickly melts in your mouth. Unfortunately, it conjures up the word "gonad." The taste is initially funky and brings to mind the phrase "bottom-feeder" or the image of something stuck to the dock in a lake. And thats when gagging can happen. Despite all that, it took me only a couple of tries to acquire this taste. Sea urchin is delicious: subtle, sweet, creamy, and sea-salty rather than fishy. Its basically like making out with a heavenly mermaid. (In fact I have heard a ruder version of that description.)
Esca's Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Sea Urchin
1.5 pounds maccheroni alla chitarra (or substitute spaghetti)
8 ounces churned sweet cream butter (2 sticks)
8 ounces Jumbo lump crabmeat (1/2 pound)
8 ounces sea urchin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
Bring 3 gallons of water to a boil (add enough salt for it to taste like sea water). When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and stir. Let cook for 7 minutes. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 cups of the pasta water and all of the butter over medium-low heat. Reduce until well combined. When the pasta is cooked, toss it in the sauté pan with the butter and water mixture until it coats the pasta but is still wet. Turn off the heat. Push the pasta to one side of the pan and add the sea urchin. Break up the sea urchin by tapping it. Then incorporate the sea urchin into the pasta and add the crabmeat. The sauce should coat the pasta without it being too dry. When the sauce is the right consistency, add the olive oil. Season to taste and serve immediately.
Actually, sea urchin is thought to be an aphrodisiac. It gets its beauty rest in kelp patches about 50 miles off-shore in every ocean on the planet, and of course, it is one of those delicacies that must be fresh and handled perfectly. At this point, I have at least two pieces of uni with quail egg whenever I get the chance. Even better, I eat uni right out of its dark, spiny shell (it looks black, but is usually red, and can also be purple) at Koi, or tossed with pasta and butter at fancy Italian restaurants. Mario Batali adds crabmeat at Esca.