Sea urchin is a prickly subject around our house. Ha, get it? Prickly??? Anyway, I could eat it several nights a week, my family not so much.
For most folks, sea urchin exists in one context — uni, as served in sushi bars. And people generally either love it or hate it. The first time I had it, in my 20s, it was at a $14.95 all-you-can-eat sushi joint. Looking back, I imagine this particular urchin must’ve been sitting on or under the counter for quite some time. My friend, Gary, and I — in a fit of boldness inspired by saké bombs — split an order. Gingerly we put it in our mouths, then each watched the other’s face flush white as he grabbed desperately for his beer. It was, by a measure I hadn’t experienced before, not good.
It would be a decade before I tried it again. This time, I ordered it at my favorite pricey sushi restaurant. The flavors of rotting, sun-baked tidepool that had filled my mouth that first fateful day were this time subtle, briny and nutty. I instantly got it — and was hooked. A pricey habit, I’ll admit — although I’ve found a source where I can get a great deal on urchin if I’m doing it myself.
And what exactly do I do with it? Besides sushi, my favorite preparation is spaghetti ai ricci di mare — spaghetti with sea urchin, or more precisely, spaghetti with “sea hedgehog”. Coastal Italians, like the Japanese it turns out, eat a lot of sea urchin. We’re fortunate in California to have abundant and very good sea urchin — indeed, most of it gets exported to Japan to support their habit.
This pasta is so delicious that my wife will eat sea urchin without complaining — something she would never do at the sushi bar. (“It’s still not my favorite,” she’ll offer up, just by way of clarification.) Especially with the crispy garlic on top, which would make dirt taste good. Here I spend all this time writing this post, and I bet not a single one of you will make this. But here it goes anyway… enjoy:
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Spaghetti ai ricci di mare
1/2 lb. spaghetti
4 oz. fresh sea urchin
extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic
freshly grated parmesan
crushed red pepper
flaky sea salt
Beforehand: heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in your smallest saucepan. Peel the garlic, slice thinly, and place in saucepan with olive oil. Heat over medium until garlic begins to sizzle, turn stove to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic becomes golden and begins to brown (about 10 minutes on my stove). Drain on paper towel.
Cook your spaghetti to al dente in a large pot of salted water and drain. In the cooking pot, add 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil and 2/3 of the sea urchin, reserving the rest for garnish. Mash the sea urchin up in the olive oil, whipping lightly, until a creamy orange sauce is formed. Return hot spaghetti to pan and toss to integrate sauce.
Plate spaghetti: With tongs, divide between two plates. Grate a little lemon rind over the top of each, then put a few pieces of sea urchin on top. Squeeze a little lemon juice over each plate, drizzle with a little additional olive oil. Then sprinkle with crushed red pepper, sea salt and freshly grated parmesan. Lastly, toss some crispy garlic on top and serve.