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August 28, 2006

In Praise of Uni

Dominic Armato
Over the past couple of years, I've really come to love sea urchin. But while I'm one who sometimes gives people a hard time when it comes to ingredient squeamishness (though in a good-natured fashion, I hope), I can't exactly fault people for feeling intimidated when it comes to these fellows. Even setting aside the neon color, slimy texture and the fact that you're consuming the gonads of a spiny alien-looking undersea creature, it's kind of an unusual flavor. Describing said flavor is rather difficult, but I'm always struck by how reminiscent it is of raw egg yolks, if said eggs had been floating around in the ocean. I think that's why I love them so much. They embody the sea, but they have a richness that you rarely encounter in seafood.

Dominic Armato
Of course, as is typically the case with such things, I end up trying to convert the anti-uni crowd at every opportunity. For the bulk of my pals, the squicky orange menace is a place they just aren't willing to go, no matter how much I assure them they'll learn to love it. It doesn't help that the context in which we're most likely to encounter uni is a sushi bar, where it's served as a big, gloppy pile that's only barely accompanied by rice and nori. This is great when you're already a fan, but as a beginner it's... less than approachable. So for almost a year now, a recipe has been percolating in my head that I only just realized this evening. I thought that an uni cream would translate extremely well to a pasta sauce, and might give my pals a more familiar and accessible bridge to bolder sea urchin preparations. The hardest part, of course, was finding good uni. But last month's Mitsuwa excursion cleared that problem right up. So here it is... make this simple pasta two or three times, and I wager that uni nigiri is going to look a lot more tempting the next time you're out for raw fish. As always, be sure to refer to the Ten Commandments of Dried Pasta.

Dominic Armato

1/4 C. extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion
1 clove garlic
oyster mushrooms
1/2 C. heavy cream
1 Lb. spaghetti
sea salt
1/2 C. sea urchin roe (uni)
flat leaf parsley
salt, to taste
8 pieces sea urchin roe
grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Spaghetti with Sea Urchin
and Mushroom Cream
Serves 4 as a primo, 2-3 as an entree

As with any simple pasta, quality ingredients are absolutely critical, and even moreso when working with something like sea urchin roe. It should be brightly colored, firm, and almost odorless. If you're not familiar with uni and don't have a Japanese grocer you trust with raw seafood, your best bet is probably to mail order from Catalina Offshore Products, who are known for pulling delicious urchins off the California coast. There's nothing that can sour you on sea urchin faster than getting some bad product... take the time to get the good stuff and you'll be rewarded.

You want to start your sauce in a large pan or pot that can hold the full pound of pasta. If at all possible, go with something heavy that will retain some heat and stay warm, for reasons you'll see below. While your pasta water is heating up, you can start on the sauce. Finely mince the garlic clove, and mince up 1/2 C. of red onion. If you can't get a hold of good oyster mushrooms, some cremini mushrooms will do nicely. I'd avoid anything stronger, such as porcinis, as they'll overpower the uni. If you're using cremini, discard the stems and use only the caps. Either way, slice the mushrooms very, very thinly until you end up with about 1 cup's worth. Heat the oil over medium heat, and when it's hot, toss in the garlic and onion and sauté for a few minutes until the onion starts to get a little translucent, but don't let it brown. At this point, toss in the sliced mushrooms and continue cooking for a few more minutes until the mushrooms absorb the oil and become tender. Add the cream, salt the sauce to taste, and immediately drop the heat to the lowest setting. Cook the sauce for another minute or two until the cream thickens slightly, and then turn off the heat and let the sauce cool. The sea urchin tastes best if it's only very lightly cooked, so we'll let the heat of the hot pasta do that. Also, you want the sauce to be fairly salty. The intensity of the salt will mellow a lot when you add the sea urchin and pasta, and it's much easier to add salt to the hot cream sauce now than to the completed pasta later.

Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water, and while the pasta is cooking you can prep the sea urchin. Take 1/2 C. of the roe and scrape it through a fine-meshed strainer. If you've watched Iron Chef with any regularity, you've probably seen them do this. In most Japanese groceries, you can pick up small drum-shaped strainers on the cheap. You can then use something like a plastic spatula to scrape the sea urchin roe through, into a small bowl below. The resulting uni juice is what you'll use to finish the sauce.

Right before the pasta is done, add the uni juice and 2 Tbsp. of chopped parsley to the sauce, mix the sauce thoroughly and adjust the salt if necessary. Again, bear in mind that the saltiness will be mitigated greatly by the pasta. It's best to be a little too salty at this point. When the pasta is done, drain it and add it... still a little drippy with starchy pasta water... into the pot with the sauce. Toss everything together and plate the pasta with a couple whole pieces of sea urchin and a very light dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. I think the cheese works nicely, but I'd recommend you go very, very easy. You don't want to overpower the sea urchin which is, after all, the whole point of the exercise.


I can't wait to try this recipe at home! I ate a similar dish last year at a Four Seasons restaurant in Tokyo.

this looks so good. i just bought some fresh urchin out of the shell at farmers market and i ate it plain, on toaste, but feel that day 2, i need to prep it with something else. This seems like a great idea!

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