CopyRight @ 1998
Or more accurately stated, Sea Urchin Roe. Want to try a tasty nibble? Sure you do. It's easy to find and easy to cook... Just try eating it though. Actually, it's pretty good and certainly worth a try.
Off the entire California coast and far beyond, the Red Urchin, Strongylocentrotus franciscanus, can be found. Since they are found below the lower intertidal zone, they generally look black, but a light shows a great deal of variation in color. They are often a very pretty red. A big one has about a 5 inch ball, with some spines about the same length. They mostly eat drifting kelp fronds. They are eaten by any fish that can manage it, though only a large Sheephead can effectively attack one and get it open. They use their bottom spines to grind a hole in the rock. It makes a cozy and safe home. Underneath them, amongst the spines, is an important nursery for juvenile lobster, abalone, urchin and other critters. Which makes it unfortunate that it is a big industry now. It used to be that the urchin was the first and commonest thing that you would see when you visited a California reef. That is no longer so true.
Anyway, to the food. If you have had urchin, called Uni, in a Sushi Bar it may not have thrilled you. But then, it was harvested and prepared on the American Pacific coast. Then it was flown to Japan and packaged there. Then it was flown to the fish market where the Sushi Bar bought it. Way too much travel and it tastes it. Fresh is much better.
Local urchin is going to have the most roe when there is the most kelp easily available, summer and fall. Pick your urchins from in a healthy kelp bed where there is lots to eat.
Bring a shallow plastic bowl and a plastic spatula. Like any wild game, urchin must be treated delicately.
Find 5 or 6 large ones, though size does not determine content. The spines can be a nuisance, so the big ones can be broken off easily enough. I used to swim along with one in my hand, rubbing and breaking the spines as I swam, with my leather gloves. It makes it a bit safer when you put it in your bag and for when you go to open it up. It did get a few comments from other divers that saw me doing it underwater.... What!?
The urchin is radially symmetrical. That means round. It is 5 sided, as are all Echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittle stars..). The mouth, 5 toothed, is on the bottom. This is the interesting part. Hold the urchin and force it to break open by putting your thumbs in the mouth and forcing the shell to break. Do this carefully or spines insert, things go flying and you lose roe. It may be necessary to use an iron or knife to carefully crack part of the shell, before pulling it open. It does increase the risk of mush though.
The roe are the 5 light yellow... well... roe.. that go from top to bottom on the inside of the shell. Carefully run the plastic spatula under the roe, along the inside of the shell, to loosen it. Roe is incredibly fragile and so you must try not to break it. If you break it into more than 2 pieces or smash it, toss the piece.
The trick to urchin is dealing with how delicate the roe is.
Get the intact pieces of roe into the plastic bowl. There will be other things with it, such as partly digested seaweed and plumbing for the urchin. This must be carefully removed. I use my fingers, but tweezers work well for this too.
When they are cleaned, it is important to give them a quick rinse in fresh water or they will not taste right. They should be well drained, especially if they are not to be eaten immediately.
They are good with a bit of lemon or lime. In Mexico, I had them with ketchup on Ritz crackers.
They are very good and also one of the strangest things you can eat. They are actually sweet. I wouldn't really want to start my day with these for breakfast, but they are well worth preparing occasionally.
Bon Appetite! /b>