Strictly 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.
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
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
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.
Makes four main-course servings.