The email from Catalina Offshore Products brought some exciting news: premium uni, normally $18.99 for a 120 g tray, was on sale for $13.99 for one day only. There was a minimum purchase of $50, meaning I had to commit to close to a full pound of this magical ingredient–a decision which took me about 30 seconds to reach.
The next day a perfectly packed refrigerated box arrived. I tucked in and was surprised at the mild flavor. I guess I had never experienced uni the day after it was harvested. Day two was more what I expected: briny with the taste of the sea and a mysterious texture somewhere between oysters and caviar.
Did I eat several of these “tongues” straight of the tray? Yes I did, since there were no others who wanted to share. The fresh taste did not waver over 4 days, even though the purveyors recommend 2 days, and then it was time for experimentation.
Search for “sea urchin roe recipe” (if you search for “uni” you’ll get colleges) online and you’ll find a few recipes. I’m suspicious of those that want you to use maybe a pound of uni (value $50-100 or more) in a way that masks its taste. Feels like the recipes were incubated in a food lab and you could easily substitute another protein.
I had some ramps on hand so tried this pasta recipe but the taste of both the ramps and the sea urchin disappeared in the sauté pan. Much better was Mario Batali’s linguini recipe (apparently sea urchin is very plentiful in Sicily where it originated) in which the heat of the just-cooked pasta is used to warm ripe tomatoes, thin slices of yellow squash and the uni. It was good, but not $20 per serving food cost good.
My final experiment was with a sea urchin mousse published in Gourmet, and originated by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It was fussy but I followed it to the letter with one exception: uni will not pass through a sieve, so I beat it up with a whisk and removed the bits that would not puree. The result was unmistakably uni umami, but cloaked with the civilizing influences of cream, lemon and ginger. I’d serve this to an “I don’t like uni” crowd, so long as I’m able to sneak into the kitchen and finish their uneaten portions after.
By this time a week had passed and I’d lost some tasting days to a business trip. The final tray was not yet gamy and suspect (and was certainly better than some uni I’ve been served as fresh in certain sushi restaurants) but it had lost its subtlety: it was coppery and a bit bitter. Time to move on.