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You've probably spotted uni on Japanese menus or in high-end restaurants before. The edible portion of a sea urchin (it's technically the animal's, um, gonads, but don't let that deter you), it's a highly prized sushi ingredient that also pops up in pastas, or even rice dishes and sandwiches, in trendier restaurants. It's adored for its intensely briny-sweet flavor and creamy texture, although it might be an acquired taste for some.
Uni is considered a delicacy by chefs all over the world, but it can be intimidating for the home cook (just look at all those prickly spines!). For advice, we turned to Matt Kim, aka @venicebeachbum, who dives for fresh sea urchin on a weekly basis in Los Angeles. He loves to host potluck parties with friends right on the beach, where he'll serve up his just-harvested uni literally minutes after he plucks it from the ocean.
How to Open a Fresh Sea Urchin
That tough outer shell with the prickly spines looks scary, but it's easy to crack open to get to the edible meat inside—and all you need are two spoons. Kim shares his foolproof technique: "On one side of the uni there's a mouth, and that's kind of their soft opening. So what I do is I take two spoons, and the round sides I'll put back-to-back, and then I'll force the two spoons into the mouth of the uni. And when you press the handles of the spoons together it kind of opens up the uni. Basically it's the leverage…that opens it up." Once it's open, wash out the innards and any seaweed inside, then scoop out the uni. Easy! (Watch the video above to see Kim's technique in action.)
What's the Best Way to Eat Uni?
Kim likes to keep it as simple as possible. His favorite way to eat uni is tucked into a simple nori hand roll. "Just give me some rice, some seaweed, and an avocado, and that's it," he declared. "I feel like that way you enjoy the flavor of the uni the best without anything else getting in the way."
Other Ways to Eat Uni
Uni pasta is another popular—and easy—option. All you need is a cream sauce, cooked pasta, and fresh uni. "A lot of people will mix the uni in the cream sauce. I'm not a huge fan of that because i think you tend to water down the uni flavor," Kim said. "I like to just take the cream sauce, mix it with the pasta, and then top that pasta with uni, and then you get uni in every bite."
Because uni is a bit rich, it should be eaten with a carbohydrate to help cut through the richness, Kim added. He recommends something with texture and a little bit of crunch, like a French baguette. "One of the favorite ways I've ever eaten [uni] was with French bread. I made a sandwich out of uni and it was literally just French bread, uni, little bit of salt, and that was a fantastic sandwich."
How to Pick out Fresh Uni at the Market
Not all of us are are able to dive into the ocean and harvest our own sea urchin. Luckily, you can find fresh uni, already out of the shell, at specialty and Asian markets. But how can you be sure you're getting the freshest product possible?
It's all in the texture, Kim revealed. If you look at a fresh uni closely, you'll see that its outside resembles "a very small shag carpet," he described. "You'll see individual strands within the uni; you want to see as much of that intact as possible. As it ages that tends to dissipate, and you'll see kind of a cream cover over it." So basically, the rougher the texture of the uni, the fresher it is; the smoother the uni, the older it is.
And once you bite into uni, you'll be able to determine its freshness. "When it's super fresh there's a little bit more texture than just the creaminess, there's a bit of a pop," he explained. "So the uni itself is in some kind of membrane, and that membrane tends to soften the longer the uni is out of its shell. So if you get uni that's like a week to two weeks old, it's definitely softer than what you get right out of the shell."
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