We have foraged for urchin before. In the warm waters of the Caribbean we did not meet with much success. The search was not methodical, we did not consider the season — it was more a half-assed curiosity in between cocktails. Over a decade ago, in the slightly cooler waters of the Mediterranean, off the coast of the small Sicilian island of Pantelleria, I not only successfully foraged, harvested and scraped sea urchin from volcanic rock walls, I was also taught the art of making a “proper” pasta con ricci di mare.
The memory exists almost as a hallucination: a slightly stooped septuagenarian produce-stand owner barking at me like a drill sergeant, his face inches from mine, alive with Fellini-esque animation as the warm and relentless sirocco blows his wispy dark grey hair from one side to the other and carves, ever deeper, the lines in his face. “How much onion do you add to the pasta?” He spies me, eyes urging me to answer, his head inching upwards as his neck strains to extend just a little bit more. He is impatient for my response, as it’s a trick question and he wants to catch me with it, to remind me that I still do not understand the nature of this dish, this dish that exists in the very soul of the Sicilian. But I know it and I keep him waiting as I smile back at him silently. “Maestro,” I say calmly, “there is no onion in a true pasta con ricci di mare, as the urchin provides all the sweetness one needs for the dish. To add onion would throw the dish out of balance; it would be a disservice to the urchin.” A final cock of the head indicates he is mildly disappointed that he won’t get to correct me, but he’s satisfied with his pupil. He retracts to his diminutive, hunched state, utters “bene, bene,” and pats me on the back as he turns to a patron who has a handful of empty water bottles she is trying to fill from the tap of vino sfuso.
Olive oil, garlic, pepperoncini, pasta water, lemon, salt and sea urchin (a concession was made for butter al piacere). The list of ingredients is uncomplicated but the manner in which they are manipulated varies from household to household. Some will whip the oil, minced garlic, pepperoncini and urchin together in a bowl with a few tablespoons of pasta water and then dump the hot, cooked pasta into the bowl and toss the whole mess, flipping it over and over again until everything is evenly distributed, all without using a utensil. Others will gently cook the garlic and pepperoncini in the oil, turn off the heat, whisk in the urchin and a little pasta water and then mix in the cooked pasta. However it’s done, if the urchin is fresh (please don’t use the uni that comes on a tray and is often treated to maintain color) and not overcooked, it’s going to be delicious…as long as you don’t add onions.
We had a hankering for a pasta con ricci di mare and, it just so happened that my publisher required one final picture for my upcoming book, Eat With Your Hands, a picture of me cleaning sea urchin. Well lucky stars! A two birds with one stone scenario. Jori picked up the sea urchin that Dan, the chef at Fatty ‘Cue Manhattan, had ordered. The urchin arrived in the afternoon, harvested that morning in Maine. She also bought a bag of anelli (little ring pasta, like sophisticated spaghetti-Os). We determined we would clean the urchin outside as not only was it a beautiful day, but out in the field we could make a mess with the shells, toss them into the tall grass and spill the liquid to fertilize the lawn.
With a side towel in my left hand, I cut into the urchin with a scissor. Starting in the soft center in order to poke one of the blades under the shell, and then working my way to the outer edge, I cut around the circle and lifted the flat bottom from the concave top shell like a lid from a can. In the breeze I imagined sitting on a rock in a small seaside village, tossing the spent shells into the water, feeding Jori the sweet, slightly metallic urchin as I scraped them right out of the shell. Our inland surroundings were not lacking in beauty, yet seaside splendor this was not. A dozen shells later we had a respectable pile of urchin and our surroundings gave way to a singular focus: making dinner.
Shamefully, I confess I do not recall the name of the old man who taught me how to make pasta with sea urchin, but I have long respected his teaching, with a slight tweak here and there (emoticon wink), but never an onion, no, never an onion. As Jori put the water on to boil I mentioned to her that I was considering finishing the pasta with nasturtiums. She eyed me carefully, took in my sincerity and acquiesced to what, at that moment, she may have considered my imminent transgression against the sanctity of this dish.
The nasturtium plants on our property are quite robust. They flower and push on long after most others have given themselves over to the cold nights. I was able to pick leaves, flowers, tender stems and buds. They’re peppery and have a vegetal crunch not unlike wasabi shoots.
Two new additions made it into the final dish: the nasturtium and about a quarter cup of cava. Cava took the place of lemon and nasturtium added a complementary note of spice and an herbal contrast that elevated the flavor of the urchin.
Here’s how to do it yourself:
- Put a big pot of water on to boil. Salt it until it tastes like sea water. Assemble the ingredients.
- 1# anelli (Setaro brand)
- 12 sea urchin (removed from the shells and cleaned of any debris)
- a few tablespoons of the cleanest liquid from inside the shells (taste this liquid first as some can have a strong flavor of iodine)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced (germ removed)
- ¼ cup cava or acidic white wine (drink the rest of the bottle)
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped nasturtium leaves, flowers, buds and tender stems
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 lb. good butter
- 5 dried chili piquin (or 2-3 dried cayenne)
- approximately ½ cup pasta water
Dump the anelli into the boiling water. Sweat the garlic and chili in the olive oil on low heat in a large pan. When the garlic is soft but NOT brown, pour in the wine. Cook for 1 minute and then turn off the heat. Pour ¼ cup of the boiling pasta water into the pan. Grab a whisk and spill the urchin and its water into the pan. Whisk and mash the urchin vigorously while adding the butter, a knob at a time. Add some more water. The sauce should be loose but uniform in color, a dark yellow. Strain the anelli and then dump it into the pan, stirring and tossing all the while until it is creamy in consistency and resembles that of macaroni and cheese. Every little anelli ring should be perfectly coated in the rich, unctuous sauce. Sprinkle the nasturtium over the pasta and continue tossing to incorporate. Taste the pasta. If it’s not seasoned from the urchin and salty pasta water, add salt. Ours did not require any additional salt.
Eat it fast as it is always best hot. Drink good booze and lots of it and, if you’re up to it, have a dance party after dinner long into the night while debating if !!! is better than LCD Soundsystem. A dish such as this is worthy of such a celebration.