Quarantine Cuisine: Sea Urchin Pasta
Today I present another of my neglected posts from back in the early parts of quarantine in Iowa, with the hopes that you, too can find delicious things with which to experiment and cook while confronting the ups and downs of pandemic ennui! And with the weekend approaching, why not try something fun and new?
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Both of my loyal readers know how much I love sea urchin, a.k.a. "uni." To my mind, it is quite simply the most exquisite, fascinating, wonderful flavor that exists in nature.
It did not happen overnight––I remember back in college I was eating at Takashi, my favorite sushi place in Salt Lake City, and finally decided to try some with a friend. We both almost gagged because of how unfamiliar the flavor (and texture!) was to us, but somehow over the years I grew to love sea urchin more than almost any other food.
While pricey, it also happens to be a rather sustainable thing to eat, since urchins currently overpopulate the seas in many places where they live and wind up killing kelp forests, so sea urchin farming for human consumption can help curb overpopulation. The best sea urchin in the world comes from Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, but urchins from the Santa Barbara coastal area are easier to get and also fantastic for human consumption.
The edible part of the sea urchin is actually (stay with me folks) the reproductive organs. They are small "lobes" of sweet yellow-orange goodness, brimming with the essence of the sea. There is no flavor like it in the world. Generally, in sushi establishments, urchin is served "temaki" style, in a hand roll with nori and sushi rice. It is always one of my favorite bites of a sushi meal.
Uni has also been a part of many other fabulous dishes I've been lucky enough to enjoy, including a pasta dish at the wonderful Italian spot Bestia in Los Angeles. The sauce in Chef Omi's uni pasta dish is loaded with creamy sea urchin, and is modeled after a southern Italian dish that blends garlic, Calabrian chilis, and urchin in a pasta dish bursting with the flavors of the Tyrrhenian Sea and sun-baked southern Italy.
I tried making Bestia's uni pasta this summer, and it was a complete flop. Not nearly enough urchin was used in the sauce, and I tried adding beautiful (and expensive) spot prawns and totally overcooked them. This time, however, I wouldn't fail. I added a tray of Santa Barbara uni to my Fulton Fish Market order this week, and did research of several recipe variations to make sure I would make the best uni pasta possible.
At the urging of my friend Justin, I decided to make my own pasta for this adventure. I combined 4 cups of flour, 6 beaten eggs, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt, and formed it into a loose dough in the standing mixer bowl. I then used the dough hook on the Kitchen Aid to knead it.
Hand-made pasta can be made with a rolling pin, but it's best to have a pasta "machine" to roll the pasta into sheets. Most pasta machines have attachments to make various cuts of pasta, such as tagliatelle, linguine, or spaghetti. My cheap apparatus, however, contains no such attachments (at least not anymore), and simply presses the dough into a vaguely flat sheet. Gotta love Amazon's cheapest option!
Once a ball of dough is floured, a long sheet can be pressed out in the machine, with relatively consistent thickness.
I then used a rolling pizza cutter to slice the pasta into long, thin strips, reminiscent of fettuccine.
Best thing to do is let the pasta dry for a bit over a broomstick, or something else long and cylindrical (get your minds out of the gutter). In this case, I washed off and set up the broom handle over the microwave, and also used the towel rack, which wound up being perfect.
For the sauce, I combined the 4.5 oz of sea urchin lobes and about 1/3 cup of sour cream in a food processor until the sauce was thick and creamy. You definitely want to use a dairy product with a bit of tang for this, like sour cream or crème fraîche, to contribute some acidity to the final dish. The latter wasn't available at the store, so I settled on sour cream, which worked just fine.
While cooking the pasta in very salty water, sauté some minced garlic and shallot in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Once fragrant and softened, add about a tablespoon worth of minced Calabrian chili. Calabrian chilis grow in the "toe" of the "boot" of Italy, and are used in a plethora of southern Italian and Sicilian dishes. They are subtly smoky and just hot enough for a little burn. You can find them canned and packed in oil at many grocery stores, or on Amazon, but if you can't find them, Fresno chilis are also a good choice, or simply high-quality chili flakes. Once the peppers are fragrant, deglaze the pan with about a half cup of white wine.
Let the mixture reduce a bit before reducing heat and adding the drained pasta to the garlic/shallot/chili pan and stirring to coat. Make sure you save the pasta water! Pasta water is delightfully starchy and can be a crucial component in emulsifying various sauces. Pour the urchin and cream mixture over the pasta, not wasting a drop, and stir to combine. Add a healthy amount of pasta water to avoid the uni mixture over-reducing and becoming sticky-dry. You want it to have the texture of a perfect cream sauce. It is really easy to over-reduce; I definitely over-reduced a bit, so don't skimp on the pasta water if it's getting sticky!
This might be the perfect pasta sauce. It's delightfully garlicky, with subtle but slow-burning heat from the chilis, and the backbone of sweet, creamy salinity from the urchin creates a flavorful, rich, and incredibly complex dish. I snipped a few chives over the top to add an extra allium essence to the dish. Even mom, who is still on her sea urchin "learning curve," really loved her dinner.
I know sea urchin looks scary and gross, and I will admit that it takes some time to get used to, but once you discover how magnificent this stuff is, you'll never turn back. A good way to start with urchin is a pasta like this! Just ask mama!
Wine to cook by: Crowd Cow sends us coupons for a company called Naked Wines, which is one of these outfits that contracts with small producers to get their wines out to the broader public. I've bought before from Naked Wines and had a few really great bottles and a few meh bottles, but when we recently got our Crowd Cow order, I took advantage of their rather generous coupon for $100 off a half-case of wine. We went for an assortment of whites, since we have a lot of pinot and syrah in our "cellar" right now, and were sent a really wonderful sparkler from W. Donaldson in Sonoma County.
Sparkling wine, especially and Blanc de Blancs with a healthy dose of green apple acidity, works really well with delicate seafood flavors, and I used this wine to deglaze the garlic/shallot/chili mix, which made it an even better pairing.