BY BILL ST. JOHN
Sure, we go out to dine on stranger things, those Rocky Mountain oysters and escargots that we don’t — or wouldn’t dare — prepare and eat at home. Not sure why that is, although getting our hands on the raw materials is probably the biggest barrier to entry. That, and that the first is testicles and the other, well, slugs.
Problem solved with sea urchin (also known as uni, from the Japanese for “roe”) because Marczyk’s is bringing the little spiked tikes to town.
If you’ve been to a sushi den and ordered and eaten uni, you’ll remember that sea urchin is up there as one of the more delicious combinations of savor, flavor, texture and temptation. It’s commonly eaten raw, and that alone is fine. Little beats the way you needn’t bite it or chew it — it won’t allow you to do so — but just squish its briny gooeyness and custardy creaminess on the roof of your palate with a mere lift of the lingua. Its saltiness is that of an oyster because they are both filter feeders, of a sort, and are just constantly seasoned with the sea. Uni has a tang of iodine, sometimes, and is always a treat for the eye, as rust-orange as the Golden Gate Bridge and protected by its carapace of spines (black-red or purple, sometimes green-tinged).
But you can cook ‘em too! And chefs are turning out some super cool dishes that use these sea treats in ways that you also can at the home kitchen. Once liberated from their shells, sea urchin insides bring that briny delish, color and creaminess to warm or hot dishes made with them. In order not to pickle itself with sea brine, a sea urchin fashions a cocktail of savory and sweet aminos, proteins and fats, all of which become emulsifiers, thickeners and sweeteners when hit with the heat of the kitchen. The sum of these is major yum.
A recipe follows for uni congee (an Asian rice “porridge” thickened and sensuously flavored with uni) that I have made before (sorry Quaker Oats’ gruel for breakfast; this rules). But try uni roe in a traditional Italian risotto; or uni-infused cheese fondue; or “melted” in a long-form pasta such as linguine or bucatini; or schmeared on crostini or toast (step aside, avocado toast); or as the better half of a compound butter for grilled steak or firm-fleshed fish.
St John’s Uni Congee
Congee (or, under other names such as “jook”) is a ubiquitous rice dish in Asia. Basically, it is rice porridge, rice and flavorings so long cooked that the kernels of rice begin to break down and make for a sort of “rice cream.” There is little like it to warm you on a frigid winter day.
3/4 cup jasmine or other “regular” white rice
1/2 cup glutinous, “sweet” or “sushi” rice
8 cups water or thin vegetable or fish stock
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1-2 teaspoons Kosher or other non-iodized salt
Good pinch freshly ground white pepper
12-18 sea urchin (uni) “tongues”
1 2-inch knob ginger, peeled, sliced and cut into slivered matchsticks
Put both the rices into a large pot or bowl and rinse them in at least three changes of water, using your hands to slush them around, until the water runs mostly clear. Put the rice into a large pot and add the water or stock. Cover, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low or medium-low, leaving the lid on a crack, and cook very slowly for 2 hours, stirring once in a while to keep the rice from adhering to the bottom of the pot. The cooked, broken-up rice should come to resemble a thick porridge.
To serve, bring the congee back to a good bubbly boil, add the soy and fish sauces, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes. Serve, very hot, in bowls with at least 3 uni tongues at the bottom of each bowl. Top with an even portion of ginger slivers. The sea urchin will melt into the congee as it's eaten.