Sea urchins have long been prized for their gonads, which are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. Also known as uni, the custardy orange lobes encased in the shell of the spiky sea creature command top dollar in Japan and have become increasing popular in the United States.
Jimmy Bannos Jr. of the Purple Pig, challenged by John Hogan (River Roast) to create a dish with uni, is intimately familiar with the delicacy. When he worked at Esca in New York, he had to cut and clean live sea urchin daily. “It literally is like taking a bite out of the ocean,” Bannos says. “The brininess, the salinity—it’s so fresh.”
The purest way to serve uni, he says, is by cutting open the sea urchin’s shell, cleaning out the gastric juices from around the five gonads, filling the shell with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, and eating the uni with a spoon.
But Bannos wasn’t able to get live sea urchin for this challenge, so he had to find a different preparation. He knew immediately what he was going to make: his own take on a pasta dish he learned at Esca from chef Dave Pasternack. It’s “one of the top three pasta dishes that I think there is, period,” he says.
Bannos made fresh tagliatelle, cooked it al dente, and added it to a pan with a blend of warmed, reduced lobster and chicken stock. Normally he’d use olive oil to emulsify and thicken the stock and pasta, he says, but he decided to substitute house-cured whipped lardo, mixed with pickled garlic scapes and melted down. “It’s the Purple Pig, so you’ve got to put pork somewhere, right?”
After spooning uni into the pan and tossing it with the pasta and melted lardo, Bannos added jumbo lump crab meat, plated the dish, and topped it with pickled garlic scapes and minced chives. “I really like the lardo in there,” he said after tasting it. “It plays well, it’s perfectly binding with the pasta.
“You taste the sea, the uni, the creaminess. It’s so cool.”
Bannos has challenged Melvin and Carlo Vizconde of Kai Zan to create a dish with pork heart, which he serves at the Purple Pig in the style of an Italian beef sandwich. “It’s pretty versatile, believe it or not,” he says. “It’s not that gamy compared to liver or kidney.”
5 oz linguine or fettuccine, cooked
4 uni lobes
1 oz jumbo lump crab meat
1 T rendered lardo or pork fat, whipped
3 oz lobster and chicken stock, combined and reduced
1 t finely diced chives
Pickled garlic scapes
In a saute pan heat the stock to a simmer, then add the cooked pasta. Add the urchin and mix until creamy. Add the lardo and crab and mix until emulsified and hot. Season to taste. Finish with chives and pickled garlic scapes.