There are two big associations I have with this next dangerous food, one from long ago, the other more recent.
Long ago: My first job after university was working at a telecommunications consulting firm as a report writer. The president of the firm, the guy who hired me, was quite a character. He was a bit like Mr. Burns at times, but not as old and more fun-loving (can we tell I’m taming this description down a bit in case he should happen to stumble across my blog?).
He was smart, driven, and occasionally slightly crazy, but in a mostly good way. Once he freaked out because I had decided to take the subway instead of a cab, so he couldn’t reach me underground. “I. have. been. trying. to. reach. you. for. ONE. HALF. HOUR!!!” he said, very uncalmly. After I explained that I had taken the subway because it was a short trip and I wanted to save the company money, he said, “Do you realize that I bill out at $350 an hour? Trust me, a cab is more reasonable than the time I’ve wasted trying to get you.” He would call me in on a Sunday night because he needed something immediately and keep me until 12am. One line I still laugh about with friends was when another young 20-something made a smart remark to him, and he said, “Make no mistake my friend, if anyone in this conversation is going to be clever it will be me.” Ah, Cliffy. Miss him.
Anyway, a big benefit to working closely with Cliff was that he liked to go out for lunch, and he lived large, always filling the table with more than you could eat. The sushi days were my favourites, because you got to try everything on the menu, all at once. I always left mourning the half-full table of food we couldn’t possibly eat.
But one of the first things he always ordered at a sushi place was uni. And not just uni, but uni with a quail’s egg. And he generously ordered enough for everyone. Without asking them.
Now I firmly believe, and maybe he even told me after I got to know him, that because Cliff was Cliff, he did this to watch people squirm. He was quite an intimidating character, and he was a president, and when you’re eating with a person like that you’re not going to say no to anything at a meal. As mentioned, he wasn’t dumb – he understood these dynamics, and uni was a good time for him. You can’t even bite these into two pieces, you just have to suck it back. Even for me, it was pretty fun to watch every time a new person came along.
I always refused the quail egg (yay me for not giving in to the Cliff) but even the uni itself was a force to be reckoned with. Uni is sea urchin. Let’s imagine me sucking back my first one, and finding my mouth completely full of the fishiest, squishiest food I’d ever tasted. At first I thought it was wretched and that I might puke all over Cliff – then I found myself craving it in the middle of the night weeks afterward. Like blue cheese, coffee, pate and beer, sea urchin is an acquired taste, but once you have a taste for it, there’s no going back.
This brings me to my second sea urchin association. One of my Twitter BFFs (yes, that’s a thing, and it’s cool), @justlovefood from Scotland (taught me how to cook haggis, coordinated the egg award that I participated in), posted a picture and recipe of sea urchin that they prepared over an open fire.
It was so gorgeous that I knew I had to give it a try, and although I thought I would find urchins at my favourite multicultural superstore, I didn’t have any luck. Until last week, when I found these
Not quite the gorgeous shells that were included in @justlovefood’s preparation, but they would have to do. Plus, theirs were cooked over an open fire, and … well … backyard fires are kind of frowned upon when your yard is a teensy square where two nearby houses have burned down semi recently. So I went with a BBQ and little clay pots my mom the potter made. To quote a tweet from @justlovefood: “Go with your instinct and palate, recipe is there just as a guide, cross fingers, will be delicious!”
And she was right! Here’s how it went down. It’s basically grilled crab and sea urchin, topped with your favourite mini version of cucumber salad.
Grilled sea urchin with crab, ginger and cucumber (serves 4 as appetizer or first course)
- 4 heatproof (or possibly expendable) mini clay pots
- 1.5 Tbsp crab meat per person
- Sea urchins, three per pot
- Olive oil, salt, pepper
- 1/2 english cucumber, finely diced (serving 4)
- 1 inch ginger, finely diced
- 8 Mint leaves, finely shredded
- Solid pinch of chives, shredded
- Good glug of white wine vinegar. @justlovefood used lime juice, but I mistakenly thought I had some and then was trapped in solitary confinement with my children and so had to use what was on hand, which worked fine
Directions: Preheat BBQ to 400. Add crab meat to each pot. Layer three sea urchins overtop, and pour olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Put pots on grill over indirect heat and cook 10 minutes, until urchin is slightly less squishy to the touch.
Meanwhile, prepare the cucumber topping with remaining ingredients
Add topping to pots, and you’re good to go
Results: Cliff would have enjoyed this urchin thoroughly while barking at someone out of the other side of his mouth. What was most shocking to me was that it wasn’t at all fishy – coincidentally, last week at the Food & Wine Expo we tasted something with sea urchin in it, and it was fishy. With an aftertaste. Make sure your uni is fresh. This dish tasted creamy and rich, and the ginger and mint complemented the dish beautifully. It certainly wasn’t @justlovefood’s “Sea Urchin and Velvet swimmer crab & rhubarb and cucumber” over open fire, but it was a very acceptable variation on what I can imagine was a stellar recipe. Rating: 4 Yums
Challenge: In the comments, briefly describe the best story you have of a memorable boss