« Cheese, in cracker | Main | Alinea at Home Extra: Happy Thanksgiving »

November 24, 2008

Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint

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...

Carol: HEEEEYYYYY!!!!!!

(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...

Carol: Dude.

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.

DSC_0006 "Someday, somebody's gonna make you wanna turn around and say goodbye..."

DSC_0005 "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:

DSC_0011 ""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:

DSC_0013 "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?

Grant: Blergh.


(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....

Read My Previous Post: Cheese, in cracker.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


These look beautiful! Too bad that you are allergic to chili's. I dunno, pickled ginger or wasabi on top? Pretty cliche but who know?

Great work!

At least the presentation looks awesome. Sad it didn't taste very good though. As far as something chili-like to add to it horseradish or wasabi sounds appropriate.

Four recipes in, and you're still doing the easy ones with fewer than four preparations.

I warn you, you're going to hit the wall toward the end if you do them in easy-to-hard order. So maybe not the "too many garnishes" or "seven textures", but maybe the Peanutbutter and Jelly?

Can you eat powdered chiles? A sprinkle of cayenne pepper with a little lemon juice (or a dab of sriracha) would be an adequate subsitute for the jala, although red instead of green.

That is really, really gorgeous!

Looks wonderful Carol. As for what to add...well here's a story for you. I grew up in Lebanon. We used to go to the beach and "fish" sea urchins. They usually are stuck to half submerged rocks in the ocean. So, we used a dull knife to pry them out. Anywho, we just cut them open like you did, and ate the 'nads with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon juice. SO, I would try some lemon zest a squeeze of lemon juice if you cannot use Chile. The acid always helps and lemon and vanilla go great together. I so wish I have the time to cook more from Alinea...I have to make those cheese crackers you mentioned soon...


All my pretty urchins and their dam, at one fell swoop?

Curse you! I'd forgotten all about Wilson Phillips until this post! Where's my insulin?

Oh well. I love that you named your urchins after this oft-forgetten and much maligned power-ballad trio. Their saccharin sweetness counteracts the saltiness of the urchin nicely. If only I could get "Hold On" out of my head now.

I wonder if the gelatin would set up properly if you used lemon? Perhaps place a peppercorn in each one to add that little bit of heat in place of the chili pepper, although I don't know if the crunch would ruin the texture of the dish or not.

Sea urchins make me feel like a wuss. I've gotten over my boyhood squeamishness about them, but don't enjoy them like I feel I should. Maybe it's because my dining buddy insists on having seaweed cones with sea urchin and raw quail egg at the end of our sushi feasts ... just to torture me in a "more foodie than thou" way. Well ma'am I really admire your fortitude and skill in cutting these babies open and making a beautiful presentation of them. An entertaining read as always, even if I won't be trying this one anytime soon. :-)

I really like the ginger idea - either steamed, pureed and strained juice in the gelee, or a tiny swipe of pickled ginger on top.

Can you eat anything like Sriracha hot sauce? A couple of drops of that might work. Maybe pink peppercorns? I once had had a sushi dish consisting of halibut sashimi with a single pink peppercorn placed on each thinly cut slice of fish. Very nice combo and way milder than black pepper.

Hang in there, Grant! The payback opportunities are stacking up. For instance, now I have to get Carol back for song poisioning me with Wilson Phillips, of all things.

Oh, and I vote wasabi.

I vote for Sriracha, I love it on almost anything. They're like crack.

They look really gorgeous ^_^!

7.50 for three?! Wow if they're that cheap I am going to a fish monger right now! Uni sashimi =P!

Really nice work on the photography. I like your aperture (hey! get your mind out of the gutter!). What F-setting did you use?

**Carol says: I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know. I've had this camera (Nikon D40) for a year now and still haven't figured out all the settings. I pretty much point and shoot. Am planning on sitting down with a real, live photographer in January to get a lesson.**

These LOOK really beautiful. I'm thinking maybe some pickled ginger. I don't know that the little something extra has to be hot.

I love the *idea* of the sea urchin en gelee, but adding vanilla and mint doesn't make a combo I can get excited by. But the concept is very cool, and I'm sure alternate ideas will flow. I think that's what I will end up getting mostly from the blog and the book. Inspiration. And that would be totally cool.

And I have captive test subjects. Mwahahahahahaha!

I will jump on the wasabi bandwagon. How about szechuan peppercorns... No capsaicin to worry about.

Chili threads or pickled ginger.

Yikes... dental sea urchins. I think I'll tackle "cheese, in cracker" for my first crack at Alinea!

Again, it was so wonderful meeting you at the FANTASTIC Chef Keller event last week! What an amazing night. I'm still drooling over those short ribs, too :)

**Carol says: Dana, it was really great to meet you, too!**

Sometimes uni and squid are served with shiso (shee-so) leaves in sushi bars (they can be found in asian markets). I think that would be a better taste than the mint leaves. I agree with wasabi. Put wasabi powder in a sifter and sprinkle a little bit on top of the bites.

Big Tips: I think you have cracked the code!

Since I started the wasabi/pickled ginger thing, I thought I would follow along with the comments because we all love our Carol.

I think sprinkled Wasabi Powder would be the MOST beautiful presentation suggested and preserve all of Carol's work. However, I pulled the jar of Wasabi powder from my pantry and tasted it and it tastes like -- metal.

On further examination, it is full of wheat crumbs, corn starch and other (ingredients?). The wasabi powder I have is crap and ironically from the Celine Dionne Spice Inc. Company. -- Who knew!!

If one could get real, unadulterated, wasabi powder, free from mystery ingredients yet still packing a punch, this would be the answer.

A small thread of pickled ginger and a conservative dusting of GOOD wasabi powder (not the crap I have in my pantry) would do it.


Carol; sorry about the extra "e" in my previous post. My knickers are in a knot about spelling today. You know I love you.

Guys, I hate to break this to you, but powdered wasabi normally has precisely 0% actual wasabi in it. It's green-dyed powdered horseradish, usually with a little cornstarch and the like added. I have looked around here in Japan, and I have yet to see any brand of powdered wasabi that has any actual wasabi in it. Some of the squeeze-tube premade wasabi pastes have a tiny bit, but it's very far down the list of ingredients, as in it comes after MSG in the list.

Real wasabi is a fairly expensive root unrelated to horseradish, despite the similarity in taste. It does not keep well, and it requires intensive water-cultivation. So far as I am aware, it is not available at all outside of Japan, though you just might be able to acquire it on a special order. Here in Japan, one root costs about $8 minimum, give or take, and can easily cost more than $20, so expect it to be roughly twice this in the US if you can get it at all. When you grate it, you will immediately produce a fair-sized pile, which you form with your fingers into a ball as at sushi restaurants and such. It tastes basically like horseradish, but a bit sweeter and more floral. Bear in mind that once you have grated into the root, you have about 3 days or so before you have to throw the rest away, which is why "wasabi" powder is so popular in Japan (apart from the price).

If you want that flavor, I'd say use horseradish, as in fresh, raw, grated horseradish. It's not expensive, it tastes great, and it's unpretentious. If you can actually get real wasabi, feel free, but you're wasting your time and money.

Personally, I think roasted coarse-ground Sichuan peppercorns are the way to go.

I'm a lurker, but I thought I'd pass along a tip that lobster is very cheap right now in Maine, yet another victim of the slowing economy. Got any lobster recipes on the horizon?

Ali in Maine

When I lived in San Francisco I ate sushi easily twice a week, and was always willing to try new things, but uni was one thing I could never really embrace. Encasing it in mint/vanilla gelatin wouldn't really sweeten the pot for me, but I do admit the presentation is beautiful.

As for Wilson Phillips, their oeuvre is like sea urchin roe encased in the gelatin of the nether regions of my cerebral cortex. I'd always worried that some day they would escape the prison I had placed them in, much like the villains locked in the prism in Superman II. Now, thanks to you, they are running free, and wreaking havoc with my short-term memory.

Uhm, oh mygawd, hilarious! I laughed all the way through. Finally, WilsonPhillips immortalized in an appropriate way, for all eternity. Cute dog! It totally offsets the gruesomeness :-)

I'd like to throw in another vote for Sriracha... I'm an avid fan and it is useful on so many dishes for decor and flavor.

Are you allergic just to jalapenos? You can always move to a milder poblano or perhaps a small cut of a red chili pepper...

**Carol says: Derrick, sadly, I'm allergic to the whole pepper family -- hot, sweet, bell, all of them. It sucks.**

The other Wilson Phillips girl is Wendy, Carlie's sister. I'm embarrassed that I know that...

I love the musical accompaniment! (both of them :-) )Matt Nathanson is quite the lyricist, isn't he? Your shot on the spoon is really great. I can't wait to see how your caramel shot turns out! My guy is making it for his family over thanksgiving!

Jake was my favorite part of the post. I have a (mini) dachshund, too.

What I have learned from reading your blogs: don't ever double-dare Carol -- she'll do anything!

Really, this is one I'd never attempt, and I'm in awe that you did it. The result is totally gorgeous. Sorry the flavor was a little lacking after doing all that.

I specifically made my browser window tiny enough so i could read your post and wouldn't be caught at work doing so... shhhhhh... don't tell anyone...

in place of the chili what about wasabi?!?! i duno why, but it has a nice kick to it, similar to chili... maybe it wouldn't give the texture that the chili would have... but wasabi with fresh caught fish = yummy...

btw what are you using the uni butter for ?

**I tossed some of the uni butter with pasta, and have frozen the rest for later use. **

i should have read all the other comments before thinking i was being uber unique by yelling out wasabi >_<

Hi Carol,

Biting into a raw jalapeno is not very appealing to me, even without the salmonella scare. Can you tolerate a dash of Tabasco? Or perhaps a poblano pepper, since a red jalapeno is sweeter than the green variety? I think you want to try to match the crunchiness of a fresh pepper, if possible.

As always, a very amusing posting!


All I can say is that you had me at fresh Uni. *dies*

Is your reaction to all peppers? Is it capscasin?

If not, there are a ton of other nicely flavored chili that you can use. Cerrano is a little hotter than jalapenos so you use less but still delicious...and Habeneros don't necessarily deserve their reputation as being overly hot and they can add a beautiful smoky flavor on top of their heat.

Bleargh indeed. There is a very, very short list of foods I just cannot bear - and sea urchin has been at the top of the list since about 1993. But they are pretty.

I love your blogs and writing, but I like the idea of eating the food from the last blog a lot better...

Damn you woman! If Wilson-Phillips runs through one more time, I'm going to hunt you down and mangle you like a sad sad lobster.

Sea urchin FABULOUS raw!
The thought of sea urchin in gelee just doesn't do it for me, but it was pretty.
If you were to try this recipe again I would suggest the shiso leaves and less, if any, vanilla.

As it sounds like powdered wasabi is a no go how about wasabi flavoured tobiko (flyingfish roe)? Is it delicately green and wasabi flavoured - the only thing is whether you want to introduce the texture of roe into the equation.

frenchfoodie: Oh hell yeah! Wasabi tobiko! I forgot about that...I love that stuff! That would be perfect on the top of those little bites. There is also have a citrus flavored one.

I'm curious as to what state the sea urchins were in. Were they still technically alive when you cut into them? Did they react in any way, was there any attempt from "the other one" to make a crawling break for it across the kitchen floor...?

** Carol says: Yes, they were still alive. No, they did not react. No, there was no 'let's make a break for it' by the other urchins."

Carol: it was great meeting you at the Ruhlman-Keller-Ziebold event!

If you're allergic to the entire pepper family, from green peppers to habaneros, then you're almost certainly not having a reaction to the capsicum (since green peppers don't have any).

If that's the case, you can get capsicum extract. It's an unbelievably nasty-looking black goo sort of thing (and it's used in commercial pepper sprays, but don't be too afraid yet). It conveys pure pepper heat with none of the actual pepper meat, and as such, a toothpick-tip-full would probably be a good replacement for jalapenos.

Siracha is, of course, exceptionally tasty -- but it has a distinct flavor that (along with wasabi) would absolutely overwhelm something as delicate as uni. Not that it wouldn't taste *good* (in fact, it probably would), but it wouldn't taste the way the dish is supposed to.

WARNING: I did a quick search online to see if I could find you a source, and capsicum extract seems to be a new favorite of the crank-healing-powers-of-crystals-and-homeopathy-all-natural-crackpot crowd. I wouldn't order from any of these people, since they're accustomed to selling water to idiots for $50 an ounce. Go to a good specialty hot sauce store and ask for a jar.

Poor Grant. What a good sport he is though. I probably wouldn't like it either, but it looks beautiful!

Carol, it's almost like you're popping up all over my Thanksgiving weekend. First, I was watching Top Chef and Grant Achatz was guest-judging. Then, the Mr. and I were bellowing Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" while we were driving, a la Harold and Kumar. Poor Grant... kudos to him for being such a good sport. The gelees look great, though! I'm not a big fan of the flavor combination... San Diego's a big uni area, but I can't get into the stuff. Seeing how they're prepared makes me even more squicked out about them.

@ Chris: Penzeys sells 100% pure Wasabi powder in their online store; it's $14.95 for a 0.7 oz jar, but I'm guessing a little goes a long way.

This looks amazing. I would never ever ever in a million years eat this put the photos are gorgeous and actually make it look wonderful!

I just discovered your website, via stumbleupon. So excited to read this!

I've been in fine dining as a server for a number of years and love what Alinea does- even have a friend who used to cook there- and am excited to read more...

p.s. haven't had a chance to peak at the Alinea cookbook- are the A1 potatoes in there?

i think my husband would gladly taste all these gelees if he were to get rock band 2 at the end of the agony ;)

at least they look pretty!

Up in Toronto, at The Spice Trader, I liberated a tin box of Cayenne Flakes. Perhaps take tweezers and add a flake or two?

Looks fantastic.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Alinea Book


  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.


Comment Policy

  • Your comments and questions are welcome. However, please think of this web site as if it were my dining room table, and make sure your comments reflect the manner in which you'd treat someone in their home, as if you'd only just met them and were sitting across from them, sharing a meal. I've got thick skin and can take constructive criticism (because ultimately, we all learn from it), but nasty, rude, grossly off-topic, attacking, baiting, or blatantly self-promotional comments aren't welcome and won't be posted. It's just not cool.