The Urchin Urge
There’s so much talk of aphrodisiacs these days, but I can’t think of a more sensual food than uni. Fresh urchin is firm yet supple; delicate and sweet, yet carries a dose of the sea’s brine. Occasionally I encounter notes of coconut or vanilla in the creamy meat, the consistency of which plays on the tongue like caviar or shad roe, but with beads so smooth and fine they are barely discernible if at all. In fact the tendrils’ shape is tongue-like and luscious, akin to the buttery richness of foie gras. Of course it’s said that the salty wetness that gives way in your mouth is reminiscent to the sensation of an oyster sliding down your throat, though it’s ever so much more voluptuous and creamy as it gushes. The urchin’s musk is undeniably feminine.
At chef Zoë Feigenbaum’s eponymous Lower East Side restaurant, I gorge myself on her perfectly cooked bucatini with cracked black pepper and uni, which is fantastically garlic-laden and makes me literally high. Uni is the piéce de la resistance at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Hasaki, either as sashimi or as a crown atop a bowl of hot rice laced with torn shiso leaves. The one and only time I’ve eaten at Eataly, Mario Batali’s rather daunting Italian cave of wonders, I had the most exquisite dish: three urchin shells void of their spicules (their spiky endoskeleton) lay on a bed of ice. Each contained five perfectly intact tendrils of the meat that had been harvested from fresh urchins, rinsed and placed in the clean shells and dressed very simply.
My plan was to buy mussels, but today as I walked through my local market and surveyed the fish purveyors with their gently writhing gambas and percebes creepily wriggling like goblin’s fingers, I couldn’t resist my precious urchins, or erizo de mar, and I cast aside my other lunch plans and other blog post ideas, and came home to write an ode to the golden gonads (in fact, it is a misconception that the delicacy that foodies like me find orgasmic is not the urchin’s roe, but their gonads).
I wanted to taste local uni in their purest form so decided against emulating Zoë’s devilishly delicious pasta. I thought of my lunch at Eataly, and decided to try my hand at something raw and pure. I used a pair of kitchen sissors to cut an opening around the mouths of the urchin and a spoon to carefully remove the meat. Inside the spiny organism there was a salty world of slimy viscera that ranged in color from purple to red. In fact this was the uni’s internal organs as well as semi-digested kelp….yum.
By the second one I’d gotten the hang of removing the crescents of mustard-colored morsels without marring them, and rinsed them in an ice bath of cold bottled water to avoid altering their flavor with water from the tap. After rinsing and draining the uni, I drizzled them with lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt and and fresh pepper, and placed them on similarly dressed lettuce leaves. I garnished each tendril with a cilantro leaf. Anything more, and I feared I would be gilding the lily.
When the moment of truth arrived, my fork and knife proved useless. I picked up each lettuce leaf and used it as a cup to spoon the urchin and cilantro into my mouth, though olive oil escaped down my chin and between my fingers. It’s a primitive urge, uni, so once you’ve gotten past the prickles, why not just give in to it?
While I was admiring my uni, I felt compelled to introduce them to my urchin ring, a treasured gift from one of my oldest and bestest friends, Emilie Jean, who designed it when she was barely old enough to vote. The bracelet, which is an antique Rajasthani bangle, also wanted in on the spiky action. Available through emiliejean.com.
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