Sunday, May 6, 2012

In the Kitchen | Sea Urchin (Uni)

Lisa and I finally did it -- we conquered sea urchin (uni in Japanese) in the kitchen as our most recent "ingredient study" for our Table Convivale supper club. After two month and a half months of meticulous planning and research (we set our cooking date to be April 28), we could say that this was not a feat we took lightly. The idea came about when we were trying to figure out what our next "ingredient focus" would be -- it seemed pretty obvious as our next challenge considering our mutual obsession with the roe of echinoderms.

Now our endeavor had many facets that needed to be addressed, the first being what kind of sea urchin were we going to consider. This attribute posed two additional questions. Would we want to attempt to get our hands on live sea urchin and learn about the removal process or would we want to just skip that "hassle" and just buy the ready-to-eat trays of fresh roe? Also, what part of the country would we want the sea urchin to be from -- Maine or Santa Barbara? This latter question is also a matter of how much we would want spend or splurge on a range of pretty good sea urchin or really awesome quality ones. After our preliminary research, the availability of live sea urchin posed to be even more difficult than getting our hands on some trays, so that was out the window. Our past experiences with sushi-grade uni proved that Santa Barbara was the clear winner when it came to the signature characteristics of high-quality specimens, so if we could find some from Santa Barbara without breaking the bank, that would be our course of action.

Now our next step here was where to even find trays of sea urchin readily available for sale. First thing I did was consult Chowhound (here and here) where I was mostly directed to Eataly, Sunrise Mart, The Lobster Place at Chelsea Market, and Catalina OP (an online distributor from southern California). I also e-mailed Eleven Madison Park's cookbook "hotline" here, which invites its cookbook users to ask any questions about ingredients, recipes, and the like -- they kindly pointed me to The Lobster Place as did my cousin Francis, the editor over at Gilt Taste, and Chef David Santos of Um Segredo Supper Club. Lisa had sea urchin/uni at The Lobster Place before, and she said they charge $60 per tray -- its sea urchin hailed from Santa Barbara, after all. It seemed like a really steep price just for one tray (I had a hunch we were gonna need more than just one measly tray, considering how crazy we are about uni), so I kept looking for alternatives. A month before our set date, I walked into Katagiri one evening, stumbling across a tray of U. S. sea urchin for a very reasonable $16.50. I bought myself a tray to test out the quality, surprising myself at how more than decent it was, considering its origins were unknown. Only problem was that after several evening trips to that Japanese grocery store, it was the first and only time I had come across it -- its availability, thus, was unreliable.


I even looked to Chef Eric Ripert for advice in his cookbooks, who advised those who are unsure of where to find sea urchin to ask a quality sushi bar about its source. I was going to go down that route until I found myself in the Madison Square Park area one afternoon, deciding to do a little visual walkthrough (and perhaps some pre-cook date sampling :P) to see what the sea urchin scene was like at Eataly. I was pleasantly shocked when I came across the trays of those golden lobes, shining in all of its marigold glory, in the seafood counter at (wait for it) $22 a pop. I had to do a double take -- I couldn't believe it. Before I could even message Lisa, I had to snap a photograph of the price displayed, fearing she would just think it an April Fool's Day joke. I was happy to say that we had found our source of uni.


With our source in tow, the next obstacle was to narrow down which couple recipes we wanted to undertake in the kitchen. After some initial Googling and searching my go-to food columns/blogs, it became apparent that recipes with sea urchin were not as readily searchable I had hoped. This initial search mostly yielded the most common sea urchin recipe (however variegated) of all, pasta con ricci di mare, i.e., pasta with sea urchin. So besides the scarcity of recipes to be found, most of them being pasta dishes made it even harder to narrow down than if it were just scarce yet distinct recipes. Either way, I made note of the pastas I found from The New York Times, Food & Wine, New York magazine, as well as some others (here, here, here, here, and here). Chef Eric Ripert had his own version of this pasta in his cookbook on Le Bernardin, On the Line, that looked very promising as did Vogue food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, in his collection of personal food narratives, It Must've Been Something I Ate. I had more luck with Tastespotting, as the recipes had photographs along with them, making it easier to figure out if it was something feasible for us to do. Even on Tastespotting, pasta seemed to be the medium in which sea urchin works very well, so it was apparent that sea urchin pasta was going to be in our culinary future.

With our main course generally determined, Tastespotting fortunately proved to be a great resource, in addition to some more strategic Google searches, for recipes that could serve as our starter/first course. Some, however amazing they appeared, were evidently too ambitious to execute (here, here, and here), while others seemed like fair contenders (here, here, here, here, and here). Lisa and I discussed our options, and from the gathering of recipes, it seemed the one that set itself apart from the rest (and wasn't too starch-heavy to overpower the subsequent pasta course) was the recipe from Zen Can Cook for sea urchin crostini with lardo and sea salt, inspired by Chef Michael White of Marea. Only thing we needed to make sure we had beforehand was a chef's blowtorch. It was totally worth getting, even if it was just for the one recipe (or any crème brûlées I would attempt in the kitchen subsequently :P)! So I bought one at Sur La Table for $40.


From our laundry list of pasta con ricci di mare recipes, we had to get cracking on eliminating the list down to the one we would decide would be it. When I asked Lisa what she thought we should do, her response was very simple: "In the end, we're gonna dump a bunch of uni into pasta -- end of story!" I really couldn't argue with that, haha. So even though many of the pastas were especially enticing, we concluded that Chef Ripert's recipe, caviar and sea urchin butter linguine, would be the best one to go with, considering his reputation with seafood as well as the readily available ingredients for which the recipe called.

Before we embarked on this adventure, I read one of Mr. Steingarten's anecdotes from his book that I mentioned earlier entitled "Prickly Pleasures," which about his initial encounter and continued exploration of sea urchin and its prized roe, in order to understand more about this mysterious ingredient. Sometimes referred to as the "foie gras of the sea," sea urchins are echinoderms "found in every ocean of the world" where red ones predominate and are the principal commercial species. These red sea urchins, "which are often so dark that you might mistake their color for black, attach themselves to rocks, eat huge volumes of kelp, bristle with long and venomous spines, and fear two main predators (i.e., sea otters and humans). Divers must harvest these creatures one by one, "prying them from their rocky perches then putting them into large net bags, hauling them to the surface." Inside the sea urchin itself there are "five bright strips or skeins of 'roe,' yellow or orange and arranged in a star-shaped pattern," where each strip is "covered with tiny bumps and has ridges down the center so that it resembles a little tongue, which is what the French call them, les langues." Now, these "strips of 'roe' are really male or female gonads" -- the word "roe" is basically used in vernacular because it sounds more palatable. The destinations of highest priced and quality sea urchin roe are from Southern California (i.e., red sea urchins) and Hokkaido, Japan (i.e., Japanese white sea urchins).

The day before our cooking date, we decided that we would stay authentic to Chef Ripert's recipe, by using ossetra caviar (i.e., black sturgeon roe), given that the prices for an ounce were reasonable. I phoned Eataly, only to be informed that they were sold out for the week (its brand is $98 per ounce) and that it wouldn't be restocked until the following week. Lisa suggested we try going to Petrossian, a very prominent, 90-year-old Russian specialty boutique specializing in Russian caviar. We perused its website, deciding that Petrossian's well-renowned reputation in the realm of caviar would make them a great source. Whole Foods would be a reliable back-up, just in case. I also inquired Whole Foods at Columbus Circle, and they were helpful in telling me it carries ossetra caviar (i.e., sturgeon roe) at $64.99 per ounce by Caviar Russe -- that would be our back-up in case Petrossian didn't work out.

April 28 finally came. There was no turning back now -- sea urchin was to be conquered and eaten in the kitchen that day.

I finally made my way to Petrossian the cooking day. Here is a glimpse of the wide selection of caviars at Petrossian.

We went with the Royal Transmontanus caviar which was $69 per ounce. This caviar is roe from the white sturgeon which is native to California, "evoking the taste of the finest ossetra, which a nutty flavor that is at once smooth and robust." The associate behind the counter packed it away in its own fancy little zip pouch (crazy, right?!) with the smallest ice pack I've ever laid eyes on (crazier, right?!). I guess if you're paying high dollars for some quality caviar, it's the least they can do :P! When I arrived home with it, I stored it in the coldest area of my fridge (i.e., the bottom-most region) before we required it for our pasta.

Later in the day, I met Lisa at Eataly, to get the remainder of the remaining "prime" ingredients.

First up was to the charcuterie department for lardo, a type of salume (i.e., Italian charcuterie) made by curing strips of fatback (i.e., layer of subcutaneous fat under the skin of a pig's back) with rosemary and other herbs/spices. It was somewhat tucked away on the third shelf from the top, second item from the right -- that white block of herbed fat! At $29.80 per pound, we asked for an eighth of a pound worth of lardo slices for our recipe (about 15 or so slices).

I got nervous that Eataly wouldn't have any sea urchin/uni trays that day, but we were again in for a treat. They had about five trays of uni out on the fish department's display, which to our delightful excitement, was sourced from Santa Barbara. From our rough calculations for the chosen recipes, we settled on three trays, at $22 per tray -- an amazing deal for Santa Barbara sea urchin!

Since we were already at Eataly, there was no excuse but to pick up some fresh pasta. They didn't have any fresh linguine, but the pasta specialist behind the counter reassured us that the tajarin pasta available that day would be perfect to support the weight of our sea urchin pasta sauce we had in mind. A Piedmontese delicacy made largely using egg yolks, tajarin is quite similar to tagliatelle (also know as fettuccine) but cut very finely. We got a pound of pasta just to be safe, for $9.80.

Arriving back to my apartment, we immediately got to work, which in reality meant opening the first tray and taste testing not just once but several bites, unable to resist those golden lobes of gastronomic euphoria. The taste testing proved that we had quality roe on our hands, and the recipes would only showcase this even further. We were beyond excited, as "OMG OMG OMG AHHH THIS IS SOO GOOD -- KEEP THE UNI COMING!" echoed throughout the evening in the kitchen.

The sea urchin crostini was our first course, so we dove right into our mise en place.

The lardo was incredibly thin (rightfully so), so the recipe advised its followers to place them in the freezer for a bit before placing it on top of the crostini. This is to ensure easier handling of the delicately thin slices.

Before we could did that though, we wanted to try the lardo, standalone, on a slice baguette. Very rich, indeed as it is ultimately pure fat, only flavored with lots of herbs and spices. I would eat this all the time if it didn't pose almost certain chances of artery clogging. But I guess a few bites once in a while would be okay! :P

First, we sliced eight thin slices of baguette (from Whole Foods) for the crostini, brushing them with some extra virgin olive oil -- ours was from California Olive ranch. We placed them on a foiled baking sheet into the oven broiler, until they turned golden brown, about two-three minutes.

Once toasted, we brushed the warm crostini with sprigs of rosemary. To release the flavor some more, Lisa lightly scored the rosemary leaves. I believe this whole process is to bring out the flavor of the lardo, whose seasoning includes rosemary.

With rosemary brushed in, {1} I used chopsticks to cover the surface of each crostini with sea urchin roe (about one tray). Then {2,3} Lisa topped each piece with a slice of frozen lardo. Once the frozen lardo felt against our hands, it defrosted almost instantly.

Now the fun part began. We finally broke in my new chef's torch. {1,2} Lisa blowtorched each topped crostini -- only takes a few seconds per piece -- {3} to melt it. Not going to lie -- I think it brought out Lisa's inner pyromaniac, haha.

Once all was melted, we sprinkled each with a little fleur de sel.

The just-torched crostini! Thought it doesn't look as pretty as Zen Can Cook's photographs accompanying his recipe, it still looked very appetizing. I mean, we were already drooling, before we even began plating!

Plating was easy -- we just added some rosemary as a color-popping and flavor-adding garnish.

Some close-ups of our finished sea urchin crostini with lardo and sea salt. Traveling from the baking sheet to the plate, then from the kitchen to the dining table, the crostini lost a little warmth on the way, so to remedy this, Lisa did some quick re-torching to touch them up with some warmth.

Our first bite (and subsequent ones, for that matter) was more amazing than we had even imagined. Smoky, toasty, rich, luscious, and melty, the sea urchin crostini was the perfect way to ease us into our uni-centric two-course tasting. Lisa even dared to say that this was her favorite thing that we've made together for Table Convivale. This recipe is so incredibly easy, especially if you have a chef's blowtorch. Plus, if you love uni, you are in for a real treat. I was sad to see my four pieces go.

We took a mini-break in between courses, but once hunger interjected once again, we were back in the kitchen to execute Chef Ripert's pasta con ricci di mare recipe. We began to boil enough water in a large sauce pan for two bundles of pasta (about 2/3 pounds), so it would be main course portions for Lisa and me. The recipe suggested a total of two ounces, but that clearly wasn't enough.

Now the recipe we used didn't really have a "serving" specification -- I think it was for four, but we couldn't be sure. We made tweaks along the way to fit our taste a little better (i.e., mostly more uni, less butter :P).

We measured one tray to be about one cup of uni.

The recipe called for a half cup of roe, but clearly Lisa and I did not think this to be enough, so in the whole tray went, to be blended in the food processor.

{1} Once blended, {2} we placed an entire stick of butter into the mix. Now the recipe called for one stick of butter with a half cup of roe, and since we doubled the roe, it would make sense to double the amount of butter, right? Well, we already thought one stick of butter was a lot already, so we decided just to stick with one stick, and add more if we need to later. {3} I chopped the butter up a bit so that the food processor could {4} blend it easily.

Once the sauce was blended, the water was boiling for the pasta, {1} so we took two bundles of the tajarin and {2} boiled it for two minutes (per the instructions given to us at Eataly).

While Lisa diligently watched the pasta, I chopped the fresh chives we would need to finish off the sea urchin sauce. I also got half a lemon ready for squeezing.

After a couple minutes, we drained the pasta, drizzling it with a little olive oil, and put it aside. {1} We turned our attention back to the sauce, keeping it on low heat, {2,3} as we stirred in the chives, with some leftover for garnish. Once the sauce was well-blended and melted, Lisa tossed in the tajarin and mixed it well. We couldn't find any espelette pepper powder, so we decided not to use it for our version of the pasta.

I got the caviar from the fridge, and opening the canister proved to be a little cumbersome for us, until we realized we could just use a knife to pry it open. Look at those glistening, dark pearls!

Then it was plating time -- transferring the pasta into a bowl, topping with the reserve chives, and finally finishing off with a generous dollop (about a quarter ounce) of caviar.

{1} We gazed into our porcelain bowls filled with the glowing tajarin pasta from its innate yellow color from its concentrated use of egg yolk with the sea urchin sauce highlighting its golden aesthetic. {2} To begin eating, we thoroughly mixed the caviar into the pasta so that there would be an equal dispersal of the pearly roe throughout. If you thought the sea urchin crostini was lavish, then this caviar-sea urchin pasta could only be considered so much more decadent and ridiculously indulgent. Though quite buttery, the pasta was incredible. It emanated the rich, creamy nature of the curious sea urchin, which was further enhanced by how much butter we threw in. It was also very interesting to experience the salty, briny, and concentrated caviar pearls against the soft, velvety ribbons of pasta and sauce -- the contrast was key to contributing to the pasta's uniqueness. It was so rich that Lisa and I ended up with leftovers, which we saved for lunch the next day, from overestimating how much pasta we could eat. Not entirely a horrible thing -- the meal would just be prolonged to another meal! :P

Both of our sea urchin courses were paired with our choice of Col di Rocca non-vintage prosecco, a sparkling Italian wine with floral aromas and flavors of honey and pear followed by a lingering, fruity finish. It was a lovely pairing, as it created a beautiful symphony of taste with the sea urchin at hand.

Yup, we killed two entire trays and pretty much an entire third one, with a half tray just for later nomming. But even with that, I think we were seriously uni'd out for the rest of the next several months. No judging! :P

Findings: It's amazing what spending time in the kitchen can teach you as well as show the potential you have with turning raw ingredients into something unbelievably delicious and appetizing. That's what I love about Table Conviviale -- the challenges that Lisa and I pose for ourselves with a seemingly perplexing ingredient (whether it ends up being that way or not so much) leaves much opportunity for us to hone our existing skills in the kitchen to good use as well as to push our culinary knowledge into a new realm.

We now have one of our beloved, gastronomic inamorata as something we've somewhat mastered in the kitchen -- the sea urchin. Using a blowtorch was also an added bonus to our repertoire, too. While this particular exploration and study of uni may have lead to a heavy overdose of its rich and buttery taste and pudding-like texture, I am sure Lisa and I will be encoring that sea urchin crostini again very soon -- it is too good just to have once a year. I would also be curious to try a different pasta con ricci di mare -- perhaps one that is less buttery and takes more from the sea urchin itself. What could also be a future feat to look into is using live sea urchin.

Looking forward to our next "secret ingredient" to be conquered -- we're considering sweetbreads, soft shell crab, tripe, and octopus as potential contenders -- and sharing the resulting adventures with you! For now, here is Chef Eric Ripert's recipe for the caviar-sea urchin pasta:
Eric Ripert: On the Line, 2008 -- "Caviar-Sea Urchin" (page 174)
Iranian ossetra caviar nestled in linguine with warm sea urchin sauce

Excerpt: There’s a lovely harmony between the sweet, briny sea urchin and the salty caviar. At the same time, the pasta adds structure and texture. We serve this appetizer in winter, when the sea urchins are best.

INGREDIENTS:
The Sea Urchin Sauce
½ cup sea urchin roe
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon water
fine sea salt
Espelette pepper powder

The Pasta
2 ounces dried linguine

To Finish
1 ½ teaspoons thinly sliced chives
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese
fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
½ lemon

The Garnish
1 ounce Iranian ossetra caviar

RECIPE:
For the sea urchin sauce, puree the sea urchin roe in a blender. Pass it through a fine-mesh sieve, and return to the blender. Blend the puree with the softened butter.

To finish the sauce, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Gradually whisk in the sea urchin butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and Espelette pepper and keep warm.

When ready to serve, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until aldente; drain.

Put the chives in a medium stainless steel bowl, add the warmed sauce and Parmesan cheese, and mix well. Season with salt and white pepper if necessary. Gently toss the pasta with the sauce.

To serve, use a meat fork to twirl one-quarter of the pasta and mound it in the center of a small bowl. Repeat three times. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the sauce remaining in the stainless steel bowl around each mound. Squeeze the lemon juice over the pasta and place 1 ½ teaspoons of the caviar on top of each mound of pasta. Serve immediately.
Lots of thanks to Zen Can Cook and Chef Ripert for having inspired us with their sea urchin recipes -- couldn't have had a successful dinner without them!

Price point: $40 for chef's blowtorch, $69 for 1 ounce of Royal Transmontanus caviar, 1/8 pound of lardo at $29.80 per pound, $22 per tray of uni, $9.80 per pound of tajarin pasta, $18.75 for a bottle of Col di Rocca NV prosecco.

--April 28, 2012

Zen Can Cook
"Sea Urchin Crostini with Lardo and Sea Salt" recipe from November 2011 blog post archive

On the Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin
Eric Ripert and Christine Muhlke
"Caviar-Sea Urchin" pasta recipe (page 174), 2008
find here on Amazon.com

Whole Foods Market
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com

California Olive Ranch
2675 Lone Tree Road
Oroville, CA 95965

Eataly
200 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Petrossian Café & Boutique
182 West 58th Street
New York, NY 10019

Downtown Cellars
55 Liberty Street
New York, NY 10005

4 comments:

  1. Stefie,
    You may already know this but, a good place to source caviar in NYC is Russ & Daughters on (179 East Houston Street). They also have a great selection of smoked fish (and one of the best bagel and lox in NYC).

    -Sam Kirkpatrick

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Sam! I pass by Russ & Daughters quite frequently, but never had a chance to go in! I will have to make a trip over there some time!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amazing!! Thank you so much for the incredible and detailed post. I'm looking to make a uni themed dinner, and was desperate for great recipes too. Do you think the pasta could be done without the caviar?

    ReplyDelete

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