URCHINS: Tools of the Trade . . .

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Bigbella

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With all of the recent dust-ups over urchin culling / collecting, and the gross, tone-deaf incompetency of CA Fish and Game (still can't bring myself to call it "Wildlife,") in over a decade of written, photo-documented entreaties to Sacramento from scientists and lay-people alike, that reduction of the mammoth urchin population had to be performed; that collection limits just had to be lifted a decade ago (no longer thirty per person per day); that barrens were developing just about everywhere -- especially, hard hit, north of the Golden Gate -- in all of that, one tends to forget, that urchins have been long collected for food by Californians, long before the state ever existed; and that the spiky little devils were not always seen as pests.

Not all of them, it would seem, got shipped to Japan, back in the 1990s.

I have eaten them since I was a kid -- basically, as a pâté / spread on bread; as an ingredient in pasta dishes -- particularly pasta con ricci; as urchin butter; and, also as a raw item. It is also commonly an ingredient when I make stock for cioppino; and when my folks discovered that I could readily collect them on scuba or free-diving, along with abalone, they fully embraced the sport.

There seems to be a love-hate relationship with urchins, as a food source; and it is commonly tied to a bad experience in the sushi trade. Urchin roe, coral, gonad, whatever you wish to call it, has almost no shelf life; but it hasn't stopped that particular industry from attempting to preserve it, as hakko-uni, prepared urchin, presented in a funny wooden box, often dosed with alum (a pickling additive -- aluminum sulfate based), to maintain its short-lived form; or ensui-uni, urchin yarbles in nitrogenated brine, a far better bet, if you can't obtain it yourself.

My last dining experience -- and I really like the stuff -- involved a spit-take into a napkin at an otherwise nice San Francisco restaurant, shortly before the covidiocy. The damn uni had turned and tasted like I had swigged a capful of Betadine®; and, had that been my first and only taste of urchin, I would certainly have been my last.

Ideally, it should have an mild, eggy-briny quality; somewhat sweet-tasting, not fishy; not some godawful astringent muck, taken from a pharmacist's shelf.

Looking forward to the Fall and Winter season, when urchin condition is at its best, I have dug up and oiled some of my "tools of the trade" -- some Japanese; some Italian; all medieval-looking and quite sharp . . .
 

Bob DBF

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A true proffessional, I just picked them by hand and operated on them with a pair of scissors. It probably looked more like a monkey and a football, rather than how you go about it.

So what do you do with all that other hardware? I have the ab irons and gauge figured out already.
 

Eric Sedletzky

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For the big red ones, I used to use just an ab iron or my BFK and flip them into my open game bag.
I’m giving reds a break right now while the purples are in plentiful supply.
Now I understand why urchin aficionados get so excited when they just happen to be around when they come right out of the ocean.
I’ve never had uni at a restaurant and it sounds like I’m not missing anything.
I’ve only had it fresh only minutes after harvesting them, most of the time right on the beach and I rinse the roe with salt water.
I remember when there was so much bull kelp at one time that reds had roe that was so fat and yellow that one good size urchin would fill a small plate. It was sweet and had a mild flavor similar to avacado that was infused with kelp.
 

Bigbella

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So what do you do with all that other hardware? I have the ab irons and gauge figured out already.

Yeah, the irons (which won't see ab action until 2026!) and the gauge happened to be in the same box -- wow, actually in one place -- a personal victory.

The specific urchin tools, those on the left and far right, either lop off part of the non-existent "head" -- so-called "denoggenizers," like opening a three-minute egg; and the others, with the pointed tips, bound with a rubber band, are inserted into the mouth (Aristotle's Lantern); the handles squeezed; and the urchin is cleanly split in two, longitudinally . . .

For the big red ones, I used to use just an ab iron or my BFK and flip them into my open game bag.
I’m giving reds a break right now while the purples are in plentiful supply.
Now I understand why urchin aficionados get so excited when they just happen to be around when they come right out of the ocean.
I’ve never had uni at a restaurant and it sounds like I’m not missing anything.
I’ve only had it fresh only minutes after harvesting them, most of the time right on the beach and I rinse the roe with salt water.
I remember when there was so much bull kelp at one time that reds had roe that was so fat and yellow that one good size urchin would fill a small plate. It was sweet and had a mild flavor similar to avacado that was infused with kelp.

I too am giving reds a bit of a break and collecting a ton of the purples -- both for lab use; to cull; and for dinner. A couple of seasons ago, I opened two sizable reds and produced half a kilo of roe -- washed them in the salt water, just as you did -- made a great pasta con ricci .

Of the dozen or more times that I have had uni in a restaurant (in the US), about half of it was unpalatable. It is telling that I never had a bad experience with it in Japan. They are also fond of the smaller urchin species -- some particular aesthetic, I suppose. Uni domburi, a great dish, had an assortment of both big and small species, the roe layered like shingles; and the kita-murasaki uni most closely resembles our purple urchin.

Your description of "kelp" and "avocado" is unique and quite apt -- never thought in those terms.

I may have to steal it . . .
 

Bob DBF

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Now I understand why urchin aficionados get so excited when they just happen to be around when they come right out of the ocean.

That's why I can't do uni in a sushi restaurant. Right out of the ocean will spoil you.

As an aside, when my daughter was in high school we hosted Japanese exchange students. With abalone, fish, and uni, fresh out of the ocean, and my preference for rice, they thought they were in heaven. When they found the other exchange students never had any where they lived, they knew they were in heaven. We still keep in touch.
 

Eric Sedletzky

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Urchin roe is also one of the most powerful foods on the planet. It’s full of vitamins, anti oxidants, and cancer fighting compounds. It’s one of the richest power foods available. Too bad so many people are so prissy when it comes to live seafood out of the sea. This how humans were supposed to eat, directly from the Earth!
I’d imagine that the indigenous peoples from that area like the Pomo’s and coastal Miwok tribes were some of the healthiest people on earth.
 

Bigbella

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Urchin roe is also one of the most powerful foods on the planet. It’s full of vitamins, anti oxidants, and cancer fighting compounds. It’s one of the richest power foods available. Too bad so many people are so prissy when it comes to live seafood out of the sea. This how humans were supposed to eat, directly from the Earth!
I’d imagine that the indigenous peoples from that area like the Pomo’s and coastal Miwok tribes were some of the healthiest people on earth.

"[The red urchin] is the favorite . . . of the Italians in California who first taught me to appreciate this luxurious food, and it is exceedingly fine. In the late Autumn and early Winter, this species is often found with huge turgid roe sacs that are bright orange in color. The taste is very rich, without being in any way, overpowering; in fact, it is quite subtle and delicate . . .'

-- Euell Gibbons, Stalking The Blue-Eyed Scallop.

Gibbons, for those who don't recall, was a famous forager and naturalist, who arrived in California, during the time of the Dust Bowl; and the poor sod had to subsist upon scallops, limpets, spiny lobster, rock and Dungeness crab, abalone, and urchin -- being unable, according to one interview, to even afford grade-z hamburger meat, at the time.

The poor devil . . .
 

Eric Sedletzky

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View attachment 672591

"[The red urchin] is the favorite . . . of the Italians in California who first taught me to appreciate this luxurious food, and it is exceedingly fine. In the late Autumn and early Winter, this species is often found with huge turgid roe sacs that are bright orange in color. The taste is very rich, without being in any way, overpowering; in fact, it is quite subtle and delicate . . .'

-- Euell Gibbons, Stalking The Blue-Eyed Scallop.

Gibbons, for those who don't recall, was a famous forager and naturalist, who arrived in California, during the time of the Dust Bowl; and the poor sod had to subsist upon scallops, limpets, spiny lobster, rock crab, abalone, and urchin -- being unable, according to one interview, to afford even grade-z hamburger meat, at the time.

The poor devil . . .
In stark contrast, there are people in the world who think that McDonalds is actually food.
 

Eric Sedletzky

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There is a commercial urchin diving operation in Fort Bragg (California) that uses what looks like a 3 or 4 prong garden cultivators with a medium length handle. They run several boats with a surface-supplied diver and one tender.

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I thought of making something like that but much smaller, about the size of an ice cream scooper for the really tiny ones and up to about the size of a baseball. Instead of three prongs it would need about five or six prongs with very little space between the prongs to be able to get the puny ones.
 
https://www.shearwater.com/products/perdix-ai/

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