Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint
Phone: ring.... ring....
Scott: Hellllllloooooooo, Blacksalt Fish Market!
Carol: Dude. I need a live sea urchin.
Scott: WHO IS THIS???
Carol: It's Carol.
Scott: I know. I'm just messin' with ya.
Carol: I don't have TIME for your silly GAMES, mister. I need me an urchin, and I need it soon.
Scott: That should be really easy.
Carol: Oh, really? Like the Moi was easy?
Scott: No, really. They'll be in season in a week or so, so it shouldn't be a problem at all. How many do you need?
Carol: Well, the book says I need one. Just one. It's for a small bite-sized thi....
Scott: So, two, then. Because I'm sure you'll gank up the first one, and...
(slightly uncomfortable silence)
Carol: You're right. Let's do three. They're not, like, a million dollars are they?
Scott: We'll have to see.
Carol: Fine. Whatever. Just call me when they come in, and I'll come get them.
Scott: What are you doing with them?
Carol: Oh, it's really kind of cool. Little pieces of sea urchin suspended in a vanilla-mint gelée, and it's this teeny-tiny bite, and then y......
Scott: Are you sure you only need three? Do you want me to order more? I mean, I know you've never worked with sea urchin before and.....
Scott: Well, I mean, I'm just looking out for you, and...
Scott: Alright. Talk to you in a few days.
* * * * *
A week or so went by, and Scott called to tell me the sea urchins had been pulled out of the ocean and flown in that morning. I drove down to BlackSalt to pick them up ($7.50 for all three -- whoot!), and spent some time with him getting a quick tutorial on how to open these suckers up while not completely mutilating them and ruining the insides. As Chef Achatz so gently points out in the Alinea cookbook, you don't want to damage the urchins orangey 'nads, since that's the part you eat.
So, we did a pretend cut, reviewed some photos in one of Scott's textbooks from culinary school, and I was good to go. He wrapped them up in wet paper towel and sent them home in a nice plastic case for me so I could get started on them right away while they were still alive. ALIVE!!! MWAHAHAHAHA!!!
Now, if you played along with French Laundry at Home, you know that I sometimes feel the need to name the very things I'm going to slice open or mutilate -- especially creatures from the sea. For instance, I felt it approrpiate to name one of my lobsters after a certain Canadian screecher, and was also compelled to honor a family known for its plastic surgery by naming my hacked-off softshell crabs after them.
So, it seemed only fitting that if I were going to stick the tip of my scissors into the mouths of these three sea urchins and start hacking away, I needed to memorialize them in some vocal-trio-tastic way. So, I present to you, Chynna, Carnie, and The Other One:
And no, they could not hold on for one more day.
"Someday, somebody's gonna make you wanna turn around and say goodbye..."
"You've got no one to blame for your unhappiness; you got yourself into your own mess..."
Now remember, you only need ONE urchin for this dish. But, you may want to get two or more while you're at it -- an extra one just in case one smells bad, or to have some extra urchin to mix in with some butter and toss with pasta later on is not a bad thing. But I digress.
Here's the urchin, upside-down, mouth up:
And, here I am, holding li'l Chynna and cutting her open:
""Til then, baby, are you gonna let 'em hold you down and make you cry..."
I stuck one tip of the scissors into the mouth and cut out toward the outer perimeter, then cut my way around the outside (careful not to make the scissors all stabby on the insides) and cut off a neat little lid:
"I know that there is pain... but you, hold on for one more day.... and you, break free, break from the chaaaaiiinnnnns....."
I gently turned the urchin over so that the black gunk (the lungs, I think) and other matter would fall out. Then, using a small spoon, I gently scooped out the orange "roe" ('nads! /12) and gently placed them into a bowl of salted ice water so I could swoosh them around to get cleaned off.
The adorable wiener dog (Jake!) hopefully offsets the crime-scene nature of this photo. It sure wasn't pretty.
I discarded the shells/outer hulls, and removed the urchin from the salt water and cut it into small portions that I knew would fit within the cylinders of gelée -- probably 1cm each:
I had a lot of urchin left over, so I chilled it and later made some uni butter (butter+urchin/food processor = yum) to use later in the week. MMmmmmmmm...... So, even though Scott was WRONG and I did not horribly abuse my first urchin beyond recognition, I was still happy to have extra to eat in other ways.
I covered the plate of urchin bits and put it in the fridge while I prepared the rest of the dish:
To make the gelée, I soaked the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water for about five minutes:
I put the mint in a stainless steel bowl, and in a saucepan brought some water, sugar, salt and the seeds of a vanilla bean to a simmer. Next, I removed the gelatin sheets from the water, squeezed out the excess water, and mixed it in with the water/sugar/salt/vanilla liquid. I then poured that mixture over the mint leaves, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it steep for twenty minutes:
After the 20 minutes of steeping, I removed the mint leaves and strained the liquid through a chinois into a measuring cup, so it would be easy to pour it for the next step:
I lined a small, square dish with plastic wrap and poured in enough liquid so that it was about 1/4" deep:
I put it in the fridge for a half hour to set, then brought it back out, placed the pieces of urchin on top, then covered it with the rest of the vanilla-mint liquid, and put it back in the fridge to completely set:
When it had fully set (in about an hour, maybe an hour and 15 minutes, tops), I took it out of the fridge, and gently lifted the block of gelée out of the dish (hence, the use of plastic wrap), and cut out 3/4" rounds.
I topped each cylinder with a baby mint leaf and a grain of sea salt, and served it on a spoon.
You'll notice the word "chili" in the title of this dish, as well as in the list of ingredients (if you have the book). Sadly, jalapeno chilis make my throat swell closed if I eat them, coat my hands in an angry rash if I handle them, and make my eyes burn if I'm in the same room with a cut up jalapeno, so I had to skip 'em in this preparation. I wish I could have used them, because in all honesty, something was missing in the end, and I think this was it.
Now, earlier this year while I was still doing French Laundry at Home, I made a lobster gelée as one of my dishes. I forced it upon my friend's son, Grant, and it was horrible. So, I wanted to try and make up for being such a jerk and making him gag for days on end after that stuff, so I offered him the first bite of this gorgeous sea urchin preparation, because I really thought he'd like it.
He popped it in his mouth, chewed, bulged out his cheeks and squinted his eyes while somehow simultaneously raising his eyebrows in horror.
Me: Um, Grant? Are you okay?
Grant: Bleh. Blorgh meen nigh habbor.
Me: WHAT!!?? Oh, no. Are you going to throw up?
(Followed by MAJOR stink eye, bordering on daggers. Actually, definitely daggers. And defeat. And, I suck, because this is now the THIRD TIME I've tortured this kid and his brother with some sort of gelée. Guess I'll have to buy them Rock Band 2 for Christmas to make up for it.)
After the look that could kill, he raced to the cupboard for a glass which he filled with water and drank in about 3.8 seconds, at which point he refilled his glass and drank some more.
So, you can imagine, after that, the rest of us were SO STOKED to try this.
But try we did, and you know what? It wasn't bad. It just, um, made us all say (nearly in unison), "Dr. Cooper!"
Dr. Cooper is our local town dentist, and the vanilla-mint combo was more than just a little reminiscent of that twice-a-year torture ritual we all know as a dental cleaning, so I'm bummed I couldn't have the chili to offset it and make it not as toothpaste-y as it ended up being.
Texture-wise, it was great. And, the urchin added a smoothness and saltiness that rounded out the bite. But, it definitely needed something else. I would love to hear your suggestions for what I could do next time to add some heat or salt or something. Would a tiny flake of horseradish work? I dunno. Hit me in the comments.
Knowing this didn't turn out to be the highlight of everyone's evening, I thought I'd appeal to my friends' kids' gross-out/coolness factor, and show them the rest of the urchin 'nads I'd stored on a plate in the fridge. I thought, for SURE, they would think it was cool. Instead, they took one look, and the 10-year old turned to me and said, "Um, Carol? You're kind of like the crazy chef lady who kills people and stores their organs in her refrigerator until the cops come."
Now there's a movie script just DYING to be made, dontcha think? I hear The Other One Wilson is looking for work. She could play me, right? If only she could breeeaaaaak free, breeak frrroommm the chaaaaaiiiiinnnsss.....
Up Next: Caramel Popcorn, liquefied.
Resources: Sea urchin from BlackSalt Fishmarket, David's kosher salt, gelatin sheets from King Arthur Flour, mint leaves from my garden, vanilla bean from the TPSS Co-op.
Music to Cook By: Matt Nathanson; Some Mad Hope. Maybe listening to Matt will be the perfect antidote to my earlier song poisoning, if, you know, you're holding on for one more day....
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