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No Uni for You!

By Bonnie Fishman

Live sea urchin (uni)
Live sea urchin (uni)

Remember back in the beginning of the pandemic, when we could not find flour or yeast anywhere? Where was it, anyway? Was everyone trying their hand at homemade bread the same week? I talked to my neighbor who has a Pepperidge Farm route (one night I swear I’m going to break into his truck to steal a case of Milanos). He told me they were backordered delivering product because even they couldn’t get flour. A real travesty for Lido lovers everywhere.

Fast forward. You’d think by now, many months later, that in Los Angeles, where my son Ben lives, every cooking ingredient known to mankind would be available, readily available. The city is a melting pot of over 140 different nationalities with that many styles of preparing food. You need dried limes? Easy-peasy. Za’atar everywhere. Urfa biber, a Turkish chili pepper? No problem. Uni (sea urchin)? Not so fast! What, L.A., and you can’t find uni anywhere?

This is the dilemma my son Ben faced this past New Year’s Eve. Ben is a wonderfully, adventurous cook, not professional but a hobbyist. He comes by it naturally, growing up in my Patisserie and catering business in suburban Detroit. He was always a diverse eater, even as a child. I remember once when Ben was seven, we took a family trip to Toronto. We ate at some swanky Japanese restaurant where the portions are notoriously small. After chowing down a teriyaki-seared salmon filet, he asked for another plate. At $30, we said no, thank you.

This New Year’s Eve, Ben had ambitious plans of making a special recipe, Uni Pasta from Bestia, a trendy Italian restaurant in L.A. Since the pandemic has closed all farmer’s markets, he was unable to visit his favorite seafood guy there. Many phone calls later, Ben discovered everyone was out of uni. Ha! Uni in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve? Good luck, we’ve been pre-sold out for days, they said. Apparently, uni being such a delicacy, many adventurous home cooks during the pandemic had the same idea.

Note: uni are the gonads or coral of a sea urchin, five tongue-shaped yellowish orange gonads or lobes per urchin. Google dictionary’s definition of a lobe is: a roundish and flattish part of something, typically each of two or more such parts divided by a fissure, and often projecting or hanging. They have the texture of a firm custard but taste briny. P.S. I feel like I’m losing a few readers on this oh-so-appealing description of an expensive delicacy. To each his or her own.

Finally, Ben locates uni in Redondo Beach, about 35 minutes away. He throws caution to the wind, gets in his car and drives down there. He masks up, steps to the counter, six feet away, and orders uni. The salesperson hands him a live sea urchin in a dish of salty ocean water with the warning: this spiny guy is alive and you don’t want him to dry out before you cook him. Good luck.

Ben takes these directions very seriously, too seriously in my opinion. Lobsters packed in dry ice fly overnight coast-to-coast and this one sea urchin has to stay wet for the 35-minute ride home?

We now know that nothing is going to go right, with a dish of sea water surrounding a sea urchin balanced precariously on the seat of his car. On the first big turn in the road, Ben goes one way and the sea water goes down the center console of the car (adding to the dog vomit already down the hatch from days before). My son is not concerned with the pile up of unsavory liquids in his Tesla. No, the sea urchin is now dry. Ah, ha! The Pacific is just a few miles away. An ocean full, literally, of sea water. Ben goes to the beach, kicks off his shoes with the sea urchin dish in hand, goes to the water’s edge to keep the little bugger covered. Problem solved.

Upon arriving home, a bigger issue is at hand. How to open this dangerously spiky beast without impaling himself? There is a YouTube for everything. Note to readers: don’t try this at home! Buy uni already shelled.

Uni Pasta

Yield: 4 servings

Uni Pasta

1/2 lb. spaghetti noodles

1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbs. finely chopped shallots

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 tsp. salt

1/2 c. white wine

3/4 c. lobster stock or clam juice

1 1/2 c. vegetable stock

2 unis (sea urchins)

4 basil leaves, thinly sliced crosswise

1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley

l lemon

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the shallot, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt. Gently cook until the shallot and garlic are translucent, about 3 minutes. You should not hear sizzling. If so, turn down heat. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Scrape up any bits from the bottom of the pan. When the wine is almost evaporated, add the lobster stock and cook to reduce and thicken. Pour on the vegetable stock.

Drain the pasta after 6 minutes. Put the pasta in the skillet, tossing it around to pull the sauce together. You may need to add more vegetable stock if dry. Once the sauce is thick and the pasta al dente, remove from heat.

Remove and reserve 4 uni lobes for garnish. Put the remainder in a large bowl and mash them up with a rubber spatula. Pour the pasta and sauce into the bowl along with the basil and parsley. Toss to coat evenly. Adjust the seasoning. Distribute among 4 pasta dishes and squeeze on a few drops of lemon juice. Top each plate with an uni lobe.

That’s the uni in the wooden box
That’s the uni in the wooden box
Pouring the wine into the sautéed vegetables
Pouring the wine into the sautéed vegetables
Adding the cooked spaghetti to the pan
Adding the cooked spaghetti to the pan
Mashing the uni with a spatula
Mashing the uni with a spatula
Ben putting the spaghetti into the uni to coat evenly
Ben putting the spaghetti into the uni to coat evenly

Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.

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