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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Defeating the spikes

The patriarch of the Great Western Casa McBardo has been enamored of late of a couple of cookbooks. For the grand dame of the seafood courses, he chose to cook from Grant Achatz's Alinea cookbook. If you're not familiar with the work of Grant Achatz, he is one of the chefs in the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement, and his Chicago-based restaurant Alinea was recently listed as among the top 10 restaurants in the world. The cookbook is not one for the faint of the heart, describing dishes that call for an antigriddle or volcano smokers to prepare. Nonetheless, greglor undertook the task of preparing #8 Uni in vanilla gelee.

First of all, we need to get uni - which is sea urchin roe. Well, not really roe in the fish sense, as we don't really know the sex of the urchin. More like urchin gonads. Trust me, it's yummy when fresh and well prepared. So, it has to be impeccably fresh. Turns out that one of the stalls at one of the San Diego farmer's markets is staffed by divers who sell these beautiful live sea urchins. Based on the color, and the size, I swear these are Strongylocentrotus purpuratus.

Sea urchins are echinoderms, related to starfish, and like their kin, exhibit a five point radial symmetry, although the ball shape and spines disguise this. Trust me, on the inside, it is definitely evident. First, though, you got to get inside. To do this, one cuts around the mouth area with a pair of kitchen shears (don't try this with a knife), and shake out most of the guts (good thing the vendor provides dissection instructions).

See the orange stuff? That's the yummy uni, arranged along the shell in between ribs in a five point symmetry. One has to scoop them out with a spoon, intact - this is a lot trickier than it seems, as you're trying to scoop out delicate stuff while essentially blind since your hand will block the hole you're seeing through.

Here's something a little spooky - eviscerated sea urchins continue to move...

The extracted uni has to be soaked in salted iced water to permit them to firm up. After that, they are embedded in the gelee - which contained a huge amount of vanilla. Individual rounds are punched out of the gelatin, set carefully on a spoon, topped with a piece of red jalapeño pepper, a piece of mint, and a sprinkling of black volcanic sea salt.

The result is a single bite with a riot of flavors and textures, ranging from the creaminess of the uni, the sweetness of the gelee, the blast of heat from the pepper, and the final finish of salt.

After something that intense, we needed to refresh the diners, and served #9 Lime Basil Sorbet as a palate cleanser. Which resulted in the quip of the night:

"I could cleanse my palate all night!"


  1. Hah! Those photos are really great, you can see more inside the urchin than you can in real life because of the flash. They're so dark in there when you're pulling them apart...

    Who said "I could cleanse my palate all night!". That's hilarious...