The sea urchin, like its relatives the sand dollar and the starfish, has what biologists call “five-fold symmetry,” or pentamerism. Although you’d never know from its spiky round exterior, the sea urchin shares this characteristic with many other living things. Don a pair of thick gloves, cut one open around the middle, and you’ll see – like the petals of a flower, or a star anise, or the seeds of an apple around the core, five gonads, called corals or roe, radiating from the center.
The roe, known as uni ウニ in Japan, has a rich, creamy texture and a savory, slightly sweet taste reminiscent of the ocean, butter, and toasted hazelnut. It ranges from ochre to bright orange, depending on the variety of sea urchin, the time of year, and its location home at the time of harvest. How do you know which sea urchins contain the roe? Well, even though sea urchins are either male or female, the roe of both is edible.
I have texture issues with certain foods, and uni is one – I love the flavor but have had problems from time to time with its pillowy, marshmallowy consistency and slick membrane. So I had a thought – why not process uni through a tamis, or drum sieve, to achieve a perfectly smooth purée, and incorporate it into pasta or risotto?
The pasta dish came together pretty intuitively. You wouldn’t want to obscure the flavor of the uni, but you would want to pick up the nutty taste with a little acidity. In sushi, the vinegar in the rice would serve this function. Here, I used lemon juice. To accentuate the creaminess, I added – well, cream.
A little caviar – paddlefish is nicest, but whitefish will do in a pinch and I used it here – finished off the dish, along with smoked salt and chive.
4 oz spaghetti or linguine (dry, good quality)
two dozen uni
3 tbsp heavy cream
juice of 1/2 lemon or a little more, to taste
smoked salt (I like Halen Môn from Wales)
Pondicherry pepper, or freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp caviar
Purée the uni by pressing through a tamis with a rubber scraper. Store the resulting purée in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Bring a pot of sea salted water to boil; add the past and drain once just al dente. Reserve a few tbsp pasta water. Perform next steps immediately upon draining.
Add the cream to pan. Bring to simmer and turn off heat. Add uni and a large pinch of salt and whisk just to combine.
Add pasta and toss to coat. Squeeze lemon over all and toss; taste for seasoning. Add additional lemon juice and/or smoked salt. Finish with pepper and chive.