If you love sushi you’ve likely experienced uni, the roe from the spiny creature called sea urchin. These days, uni dishes go way beyond laying it on a mound of rice to be eaten in one bite. Recipes that incorporate this prized ingredient into everything from sauces and soups to savory mousses and more, appear in French, Italian, Asian and American cookbooks.
From San Diego to Ft. Bragg, California is home to sea urchin divers who bring the creatures to processors who in turn ship it to sushi bars and restaurants worldwide, mostly to Japan and the United States. Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable organized a trip to San Diego to go on the boats with the divers and see fiirst-hand the sea urchin harvesting. The group saw the urchin processing at San Diego’s Catalina Offshore Products, followed by dinner and no, it did not take place at a sushi bar.
Pete Halmay is a diver with a mission: Get these sustainably grown urchins beyond the sushi bars and into restaurants such as Tony D’Amato’s well-known Baci Ristorante on Morena Boulevard. D’Amato hails from Sicily where sea urchin, known as ricci di mare, is as much a staple as pasta.
D’Amato served a sampler of urchin dishes that began with drinks and an incredibly simple bruschetta: Bread rounds brushed with a bit of garlic infused olive oil, topped with a “tongue” of roe. At the table, an amuse bouche of roe served in the spiny test (its shell) with prosecco and eaten with a teaspoon. Note that these two presentations allow the roe to stand alone, much like it does in sushi. In dishes like these, the roe’s delicate sea taste and creamy texture meld in the mouth, unhampered by too many other flavors.
Next came uni bisque with mussels, scallops and uni also served in the test. The sampler finished with a classic Italian dish of spaghetti mixed with a hint of olive oil, garlic and pinch of red pepper and barely warmed roe.
If you think sushi is the only way to experience this lovely delicacy, think again. Resources include http://www.calurchin.org/ and http://www.catalinaop.com/ as well as http://www.epicurious.com/. Photos by Marcie Rothman.