Sea Urchin: How is this food?

Sea Urchin Butter. Words I would never have put together. Now we have a log of it in our freezer and we’re melting it on top of all kinds of things, like seared scallops and pasta (recipes at the end of post). How did this happen?

Purple sea urchins on ice

Purple sea urchins at the market

Like many people perhaps, our past experiences with sea urchin consisted of eating uni sushi in Japanese restaurants. I thought of it as an exotic item that came from, well, somewhere else. I rarely considered the reality of the creature that it came from. In Spain, we were intrigued to find sea urchins readily available in the markets. When we even found them in our local grocery store in March, we decided to learn more about them because, seriously, how does this become food?

Sea Urchin Mercadona Final

Sea urchins at Mercadona

Sea urchin is featured in most Mediterranean cuisines, and they are especially prized in the Catalonia and Galicia regions of Northern Spain. In Spanish they are called erizo de mar, which literally means hedgehog of the sea. They are closely related to starfish and sand dollars (not hedgehogs). The edible parts of the urchin are the gonads. These are often called sea urchin roe, which isn’t wholly correct, since you are eating the entire reproductive organ. But roe sounds so much tastier than gonads, so I’m okay with it.

Not all sea urchins are edible. The edible species we get in Spain, Paracentrotus lividus or more commonly called purple sea urchin, can be found all along the Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic coasts. In the United States you can find purple, red, and green sea urchins commercially harvested to eat. For example, Atlantic green urchins are harvested along the coast of Maine.

We were dismayed to find out that the season was almost over. Sea urchin is a winter delicacy. The season runs from November to April. Urchins build up their gonads over the winter while the water is cold. By May, the urchins begin to spawn, releasing their gametes into the water. We were just a few days away from April, so we bought them up with a sense of urgency.Sea Urchin on plate Final

Getting into them is less complicated than expected. A pair of sturdy kitchen shears does the job. Wearing a thick glove to protect the hand holding the urchin, place the point of the shears into the soft area surrounding the mouth on the underside of the urchin. Crunch through the shell to cut a circle around the entire bottom. Yes, bits of spines are going fly all over the kitchen. Maybe some safety glasses would be advised?

The inside of the urchin is full of liquid. Sea urchins actually have a water vascular system, which is super cool if you are interested in that kind of thing. I’m sure right now you’re thinking “Yum! That looks delicious”, right? No?

I have read that the liquid has a lot of flavor and can be used to cook with, but I’m not that brave. Dump that liquid into a bowl to save or the sink to discard. Clinging to the inside of the shell are five golden gonads, sorry…roe. Using a small spoon, gently scoop the delicate lobes of “roe” out into a bowl of cold salted water to clean off the bits of brown and then drain on a plate. Now they look delicious. The color can range from pale yellow to bright orange.

Sea Urchin Gonads

Sea Urchin Roe

At this point, the roe can eaten raw, maybe with just a bit of lemon. The silky texture dissolves on the tongue, bathing your mouth with flavor that is a lush blend of sweet and briny. It is like nothing else and difficult to describe. Many people say it tastes like the sea. (I disagree. I’ve been knocked down by a wave and taken in a mouthful of sea. It’s not good.)

In Catalonia, they simply spoon the raw roe, directly from the shell, onto a piece of bread. To me, the flavor of urchin on its own can be overbearing. Too much of a good thing. We prefer to use it as a flavoring in other dishes, spreading that goodness around. With the season nearly over, a sea urchin butter seemed a great way to preserve that flavor. The butter can be frozen and used later to add a touch of luxuriance to a variety of dishes.

Sea Urchin Butter

To make the butter, we used roe freshly removed from four sea urchins, which gave us about 20 lobes. (The amount you need will depend on the size of the roe, which varies depending on the type of sea urchin. Ours were quite small, each lobe only about 1 inch long.) The roe was pressed through a sieve with a rubber spatula to create a smooth paste.

We used a good quality unsalted butter (125 grams or about 1 stick) that was softened on the counter. The roe and butter went into the bowl of a food processor with chopped shallot and lemon zest, and was blended until smooth.

We chilled the butter in the refrigerator until it stiffened enough to work with, about 1 hour. It was then scooped onto plastic wrap and rolled into a 1½ inch log, which went back into the refrigerator to harden. To use, we sliced off the amount needed. The remaining log of butter can be stored tightly wrapped in the freezer.Butter Log 1 Final

Scallops with Sea Urchin Butter

Our first thought for a recipe was that the richness of sea urchin butter would be a good match with the delicate sweetness of scallops. We are lucky to have live scallops available in the markets here. We used the whole body scallops on the half-shell and topped them with a small slice of urchin butter. They were placed under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, just long enough melt the butter and slightly sear the tops while keeping them rare in the middle.

Broiled scallops with sea urchin uni butter

Scallops with Sea Urchin Butter

 

Spaghetti with Sea Urchin Butter

In Italy, sea urchin is used to flavor pasta. We used approximately 1 tablespoon of urchin butter per serving to toss with fresh spaghetti, adding some quality extra virgin olive oil and grated parmesan. A few lobes of fresh urchin roe made this dish extra special, but it would still be richly flavored on its own in the middle of summer when fresh urchin is not available. Spaghetti was the only fresh pasta available to us at the time. If available, we recommend using angle hair pasta as this lighter style will allow the sea urchin butter to be the star.

Pasta with Sea Urchin Butter Uni

Pasta with Sea Urchin Butter

Sea Urchin Butter

Ingredients

125 grams unsalted butter (about 0.5 lb., or 1 stick))
Roe from 4 sea urchins (about 20 lobes, depending on size of urchins)
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon minced shallot
Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Allow butter to soften at room temperature.
  2. Place sea urchin roe in a fine sieve and press through the mesh into a bowl using a rubber spatula.
  3. Place butter and sea urchin paste into the bowl of a food processor.
  4. Add minced shallot, lemon zest, salt and pepper.
  5. Blend the mixture until smooth. Remove into a bowl and chill in the refrigerator until firm enough to work with, about 1 hour.
  6. Lay the butter out onto a piece of plastic wrap and roll into a log shape about 1½ inch in diameter .
  7. Return butter to the refrigerator to chill until solid, or seal tightly and freeze to use later.

5 thoughts on “Sea Urchin: How is this food?

  1. Thank you so much for publishing this recipe! Unfortunately, we’re heading back to the US tomorrow, but I think I can find sea urchin at Whole Foods.—-It won’t be quite the same, but it will have to do until we return to Valencia!

    Liked by 1 person

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