Linguine with Sea Urchin Roe (Uni) Sauce

DSC_0255_01aStrictly speaking, the edible part of sea urchin – uni, as it’s called in Japanese – isn’t roe at all. It is the animal’s gonads, and will eventually turn into sperm (milt) or roe, depending on the animal’s sex. Uni is a delicacy, and an acquired taste. It is intensely briny, with a heady, floral, loamy aftertaste. In Japan, it’s served most commonly as nigiri sushi, on rice, and it is classified according to quality, based upon its color, flavor, and firmness. Uni is best eaten fresh, i.e., from an animal that you have just killed yourself, however you can also buy uni cleaned, packaged, and ready to eat. This dish – al dente linguine, served in a rich sauce made with fresh raw uni emulsified with melted butter and lemon – is a coastal Italian classic, and, cleaning of the sea urchin aside, it is quick and remarkably easy to prepare. It tastes like nothing you have ever eaten before in your life.

As with much of my cooking, my preparation of this dish was a happy accident. I went shopping intending to buy squid or octopus. I had already decided what I would cook. But the fishmonger had no squid that was not already frozen in one-kilo blocks, and no fresh octopus. He did have a basin of purply, porcupine-spined sea urchin, however. I walked around the shop, gazed at the clams and fresh Louisiana prawns, and contemplated the crappie. But I kept returning to the sea urchin. I’d never cooked with sea urchin, but on one memorable occasion I ate one of the best dishes I’d ever tried, a pasta dish prepared with fresh Scottish sea urchin, at the London Italian restaurant Bocca di Lupo.

Of course, I bought the sea urchin. The fishmonger carefully packed two pounds of the creatures into a paper bag, which sat beside me on the front passenger seat as I drove home. After I parked my car, I heard a Halloween-creepy rustling beside me. It took me a moment to realize (head pounding, heart thudding in my belly) that this was the living sea urchins I had just bought. Yes, I had realized on some intellectual level that the sea urchins were alive, but I did not expect them to move, but to merely exist, passive and clam-like, awaiting their fate. At home, I set the sea urchins on a plate, where they sat, gently waving their spines at me. DSC_0248_01a

To extract the uni from a live sea urchin, first you will need to don protective gloves. Heavy latex gloves are fine. The spines are sharp, and exude a dark-purple ink. Next, prepare a salty brine of water and salt that you will keep in a bowl beside you. A separate clean bowl or plate should be readied to receive the cleaned sacs of milt. Next, flip the creature over. The exoskeleton (shell) is covered with spines, but at the center of the animal’s underside is its beak. Using sharp scissors and decisive movements, snip the beak out of the shell, cutting a disc of about one-and-a-half to two inches diameter. Grasp this disk firmly and pull it out of the animal. (The sea urchin is well and truly dead now. You can stop fluttering your hands and squealing.) Tip any liquid into the sink and carefully scrape out the black guts. Then, using a teaspoon, scrape the uni out of the sides, using a firm motion from top to bottom. Sea urchins are poly-radial, so there should be five pockets of uni. Try to extract all of the uni you can, even if you wind up with some broken pieces. Rinse the uni gently in the salt-water solution, delicately lifting away any black mucous or spines that may have adhered to the roe with your fingers or tweezers. Place the cleaned uni on your prepared clean plate. Continue until you have cleaned all of your sea urchins.

For this dish, I recommend using high-quality dried pasta – an imported Italian pasta is ideal – rather than fresh pasta, because the al dente bite of dried semolina pasta is perfect with the creamy, unctuous uni sauce. Serve with a crisp, neutral, minerally white wine and a bitter greens salad (e.g., radicchio, fennel, endive, or escarole) in a sharp vinaigrette to finish.

If you are using fresh live sea urchins, you will need:

Short sharp scissors or shears

Rubber or heavy-duty latex gloves

Intestinal fortitude

Ingredients:

135 grams (about 4 and ¾ ounces) uni, or sea urchin roe/milt

55 grams (about 2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted, warm or at room temperature

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

3 tablespoons panko or homemade bread crumbs, toasted golden brown

2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest

1 pound of linguine

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Method:

If using fresh sea urchin, clean as described above. Using a food processor or hand-held blender, blend the uni until it is completely smooth. Slowly add the melted butter, mixing all the while, until fully incorporated, then blend in the lemon juice.

Heat about four quarts of water in a large pot until it is boiling vigorously, then salt liberally. (I salt my pasta water until it is just slightly less salty than sea water.) Cook the pasta until just al dente, then drain, reserving about ½ – 3/4 cup (about 120-180 ml) cooking water. Add the sea urchin sauce, half of the lemon zest, and all but a pinch of the chopped parsley, and toss with the pasta in the pot, using the pasta water as necessary to thin. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. (You shouldn’t need additional salt, but the pepper is essential, in my opinion.) Sprinkle with the panko and the remaining lemon zest and parsley, and serve immediately. DSC_0258_01a

Makes four main-course servings.

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17 thoughts on “Linguine with Sea Urchin Roe (Uni) Sauce

  1. What a wonderful post! Beautiful pics. Strange ingredients. Great instructions. What more could one ask for?

    Oh, I know, not really so strange. I’ve never much liked the urchin sushi I’ve had, but that’s probably because it was far from where it should have been. I do remember a wonderful salad at Nobu back in the day that haunts me still and shows that what I’d had before or since wasn’t right. A client was telling me the other day that, in Maine, they’re having a huge success with sending sea urchins (which they don’t eat) to Japan. Which I found interesting, but kinda sad.

    • My father said, “Susan, I’ll make a bet with you. I’ll bet that no one — not one of your readers — will make this dish.” He is probably right — even those who are undaunted by the thought of extracting roe from a strange sea beasty that moments ago was alive may have difficulty sourcing live sea urchins. But, it’s been a month since I’ve posted something new, so I figured I should burst back with a bang. I have never been to Nobu, but perfectly fresh sea urchin is extraordinary. :-)

  2. What an incredible post! I made uni pasta as well but I haven’t had the time to write it up. It’s not nearly as wonderful as yours. Well done! The sea urchin is beautiful, isn’t it? I’ve only seen fresh sea urchin a couple of times, but never here in LA. The uni I buy is from the Japanese market, not fresh.

    daisy

    • I’m sure your uni pasta is glorious, Daisy! I had never seen fresh urchin outside of a restaurant before either, which is why I found it irresistible, I suspect. But a bit harrowing to dissect. ;-)

  3. LOOKS AMAZING. Never handled fresh sea urchin before, looks like one those things I will postpone for as long as I can, you crazy cat! I guess maybe I’m just noob, but I’ve never come across uni in dishes other than Japanese ones, so linguine is a fresh take on it for me. Good one susan! p.s. I haven’t been keeping up, but are you based in the US now? I thought you were only away for the summer.. but it’s been a while now…

    • Thanks Shu! I came back for a job, and wasn’t sure if it would ‘stick’ — I am trying to devise a way to divide my time equally between London and Seattle. I was just in London in October. Sorry to have missed you! :-(

  4. Susan, thank you for this recipe. I agree, sea urchin is a bit of an acquired taste, but I had it late in my twenties and I fell in love with it. I love briny tasting ingredients, and I’m in love with sea food in general. I want to make this pasta because it has all the elements I love in a pasta dish. Thanks for this inspiring post!

  5. I’ve had uni pasta before, but I live in Japan…so I felt compelled to be that obnoxious kid who had to refute your claim of “never tried”. That being said, uni-pasta isn’t the most popular thing in Japan (that might be napolitan, which is made with ketchup of all things)… but you CAN buy premade “uni cream” pasta sauce packages, or fresh, cleaned uni in a variety of qualities, ready to be utilized in whatever means appeals. My home-made version of uni pasta was not much different from your’s, though I did not use the lemon OR breadcrumbs… I wanted the uni to be the penultimate factor. So, to your father, I say; been there, done that will totally cook this, pffft! ;P

    • Great comment! The thought of that Napolitan pasta is hilarious. For me, the breadcrumbs were about texture, rather than flavor, in the dish, but I agree, the uni needs to be the star. :-)

  6. Well, at first I thought it sounded strange to eat the gonads. Then I remembered having once eaten those of turkeys. Don’t ask. It was a large country party and I was set up for it.

    I would love to try urchin prepared by someone else, but I doubt I’ll make this one. Sorry Susan. But I love your pictures and instructions.

    • ;-) My dad said the same thing. It’s okay — I did enjoy writing the post, and there is a perverse part of me that likes to experiment with unusual (sometimes daunting) ingredients.

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