Caviar, Sea Urchin, and Friends
I shouldn't have splurged, but I did. So I'm writing about it.
Caviar and sea urchin are two foods that people generally either love or hate. I love them. They're really wonderful on their own, but they're also delicious paired together, and with other ingredients. They add a sense of luxury to a meal. The options are endless. But what if you're not familiar with either, or you're not sure what to do with them besides just eat them by themselves?
I have to admit that I have expensive tastes. I don't mean that I only eat expensive food, and I also don't think expensive has to mean good. But a lot of the food that I like simply is quite expensive. My budget, sadly does not match those expensive tastes. However, since I've been staying home a lot, thanks to everything that's been going around, I haven't spent too much at restaurants lately, even if I include takeout. And this week I decided to treat myself by ordering some caviar and sea urchin.
Along with truffles, caviar is probably one of the best known luxury food items. Often times "caviar" is used as a general term to refer to any kind of fish eggs. But "true" caviar comes from sturgeon. It's expensive for a few reasons. Sturgeon take quite a while to reach maturity, and the fish needs to be killed to get the roe. Sadly, sturgeon meat itself isn't all that popular, and it must be handled properly or it breaks down and becomes inedible rather quickly. Sadly these factors can result in a lot of waste and over fishing.
Luckily, farming sturgeon is becoming more practical and there are even methods for extracting the roe without killing the fish. So caviar is becoming more accessible and ethical each year. Hopefully these methods will help wild populations and also reduce the cost of caviar, making it accessible to more people.
I chose to try out Imperia caviar which promises high quality caviar at a fraction of the price. But I had trouble figuring out how much to buy. They offer free shipping on orders over $300, so I decided to get enough to cover the free shipping. But was it too much? I got 5 x 30g cans of both the royal ossetra caviar and 5 x 30g cans of the kaluga hybrid reserve. That's 300g of caviar.
But what is 30g of caviar? I decided to do a size comparison. If you don't have any Australian Kookaburra, but happen to have an American 1oz silver eagle, they're the same dimensions.
Uni, literally the reproductive organs of the sea urchin, is probably even more polarizing than caviar. Sea urchin has an unusual flavor and texture. Honestly, it's hard to describe and the only way to understand uni is to actually try it. Unfortunately, depending on the species, the time of year, and what the sea urchin's been eating, the flavor of uni can vary from incredibly sweet and rich, to briny and bitter, due to higher iodine levels.
Have I enticed you yet? I admit that bad uni is thoroughly disappointing, but good quality uni from California and Japan is absolutely luxurious. It's sweet and savory, with a hint of the ocean. Sea urchin isn't just eaten in Japan. And if sea urchin sushi isn't appealing, the Italian preparation may be preferable. In Italy, sea urchin (ricci di mare) is often mixed into and served on top of pasta. As much as I love eating sea urchin by itself, or in a bowl of sushi rice, I also love sea urchin pasta.
I get my sea urchin from Catalina Offshore Products. Again, there's free shipping over $300. But at least with Catalina OP, I can get a whole bunch of different items. They have some really nice fish that's great for sushi. If you happen to live near San Diego, I'd definitely check them out.
I decided to prepare the caviar and sea urchin in a number of different ways. First of course I tried the caviar plain. It was delicious as expected, but honestly not overpowering. The texture is a bit hard to describe. If you've ever tried masago (capelin roe) or tobiko (flying fish roe) when eating sushi, don't expect to get that hard pop. Caviar is softer. It has a bit of give, but it's more creamy or waxy, but in a good way.
I think caviar by itself or with something neutral really is the best way to experience it, but there are some other fun pairings. Apologies for not having full recipes. I tend to play things by ear when it comes to cooking.
Ankimo & Toro Appetizer
Ankimo, also known as "foie gras of the sea," is the Japanese term for monkfish liver, and it's another favourite of mine. It's generally served as an appetizer, though I have occasionally seen it as a sushi item. It's often served with Ponzu, a sauce made with Japanese citrus and soy sauce, as it cuts through the strong flavor of the ankimo. I've also seen it served with fatty tuna belly (toro) tartare. So I decided to make my own version.
If I had an appetizer serving spoon, I probably would have diced the ankimo and used a little bit less, and made a third of the portion. The amount of food that I made is huge for an appetizer, and the amount of ankimo somewhat overpowered the caviar. I also make a less expensive version of this dish using salmon belly and salmon roe. Aside from being less expensive, the salmon roe holds its own against the ankimo better.
Lemon and Sea Urchin Capellini and Seared Scallops
Seafood generally pairs well with lemon. Acidity from the lemon just brightens everything up. I wanted to extract as much of the flavor from both the lemon and the sea urchin, so I started by making a compound butter. It's really easy to make. Take room temperature butter, lemon zest, and uni, and mix it together in a food processor. Mixing everything together by hand won't create a fully blended product.
Once everything is blended together, shape the butter into a log and wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to chill fully. I used about three or four "tongues" of sea urchin and a heaping teaspoon of zest for one stick of butter. Next time I'll probably add more. Don't use the best pieces of uni for this. Use the ones that are already starting to get soft.
Pasta al limone often has cream and cheese, but I didn't want to completely overpower the ingredients, and paring cheese with seafood is an iffy thing. So I just added some extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and compound butter to a pan over low heat and let it warm before mixing it into the pasta and serving it with a few scallops and caviar. While I seasoned the scallops (and the pasta water of course), I didn't really add any other salt. Besides the salt from the caviar, the lemon added a lot of depth which would often come from salt.
I will say this about the result. The uni is there, but it's very mellow. I think if I had some better pieces, I would have included them on top of the pasta. It would have brought that element to the surface more. A little more uni in the butter itself might have also helped.
Have lots of compound butter left and not sure what to do with it? Add a little to scrambled eggs and top it with more uni and caviar. I used to hate scrambled eggs. I thought they were terrible. It turns out, they were just prepared incorrectly. A soft scrambled egg served with toast is a solid vehicle for caviar. I suppose it makes sense. It's eggs paired with eggs. But to make a proper soft scramble, you have to be patient. Low heat, constant stirring, and time, are the secret ingredients to a perfect soft scramble.
To make the scramble, whisk two eggs and sat together. Add two tablespoons of water to a skillet, or small pot, over low heat and wait until it starts to bubble. If it doesn't bubble, raise the temperature a little. Add the eggs and stir constantly. I used a silicone spatula because it flexes making it easier to the edges of the pan. After about 10 minutes the eggs should come together with small curds and a "sauce" from the remaining egg. Mix in a tablespoon of compound butter to finish. Spread the eggs on some toast and top with uni and caviar.
The compound butter picked up a lot more of the lemon flavor over night and the lemon really came through in the eggs. It was interesting and almost like a savory lemon curd. If you don't like lemon curd, you might not like this dish.
The absolute most traditional pairing for caviar is a good quality vodka. Given the Russian origin of the tradition, it's not surprising. A lot of people however pair caviar with champagne, as both are opulent foods. When tasting caviar by itself, I'd go with vodka. With the more Japanese inspired dishes, a dry sake works. Shochu, a distilled beverage made from a variety of grains including rice, barley, and sweet potato, also seems appropriate. While I'm a bit critical of the campaign and caviar pairing, as things don't go together just because they're both expensive, I think champagne would be the better choice for the dishes with citrus elements, like the pasta al limone and the eggs.
I hope you enjoyed this article and found it informative. I don't expect people to fund my expensive tastes, but reader support allows me to afford to get interesting products that I can then write about. I can only continue to offer these informative articles because of the support I get from my readers. If you liked this article, consider tipping and sharing this article. Every bit of support helps. And if you have any requests for articles, let me know. If there's something that you want me to review or discuss, I'll be happy to look into it.