The solution to California’s rampant sea urchin problem is to eat them. I gave it a try
"Baby! I've sprayed my mouth all over the place!"
I never thought I'd shout those words on a quiet Sunday morning in my tiny San Francisco kitchen. On the other hand, I never thought I'd stare at a sink full of spiky purple aliens with a murderous knife in my hand. The ethereal voice of Phoebe Bridgers hummed softly in the background.
But these lively little aliens - purple sea urchins, in fact - have given the Pacific west coast a huge headache. Their population has exploded by 10,000% since 2014. Scientists blame the decline in populations of sea otters and starfish - two of the sea urchin's natural predators.
Hundreds of millions of purple sea urchins now cover the coast from Baja to Alaska, where they have engulfed the region's vital kelp forests, causing immeasurable damage to the marine ecosystem. In California, an estimated 95 percent of the kelp forests, which serve as both shelter and food for a wide variety of marine life, have been decimated and replaced by so-called "urchin wastelands" - giant carpets of spiked purple spheres of the ocean floor.
That's why marine biologists and chefs have teamed up to release a new predator into their natural environment: me.
Or, to be precise, me and all of you. For years, attempts have been made to get the public to eat more sea urchins in order to contain the population and reclaim kelp forests.
It shouldn't have been a heavy sale. Sea urchins or uni in the sushi world are considered a delicacy in gourmet circles. "The two main descriptors I would use are sweet and salty, similar to an oyster, similar to a clam," said chef Ali Bouzari. “They taste like the sea because they live in the sea. They are sweet, umami, and a little bit salty. The texture is very creamy. It is very similar to butter at room temperature. "
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However, it was more difficult to get good food during the pandemic. And the retail cost, which ranges from $ 9 to $ 12 per child at your local fishmonger, can't justify every home cook.
What Bouzari, co-founder of the culinary research and development company Pilot R & D, has pushed for in recent years is that sea urchin cuisine doesn't have to be particularly precious or expensive. You can have it served on half a bowl topped with espresso-cream-whipped-cream-potatoes and caviar - as in the Michelin-starred restaurant SingleThread in Healdsburg - or you can sauté it with a little onion, sausage and a day-long rice and one making dirty rice, one of Bouzari's favorite recipes. And anyone with access to the coast can have dirty rice from sea urchins on a dirty rice budget.
And so I found myself in my kitchen, covered in seaweed and purple spikes.
Harvesting sea urchins
The day before my mouth exploding episode, I stood on the beach at Timber Cove in Jenner, California, waiting while Bouzari and his friend Justin Ang, a pilot R&D product manager, paddled ashore on some surfboards.
They had spent the morning spearfishing and had come in with scallops, blue stonefish, and a giant cod - and sea urchins, of course. A one-year fishing license in California is $ 52.66, while my husband and I each paid a $ 10 "ocean extraction" fee at Timber Cove.
Bouzari came out of the water dressed like an underwater pirate, with weights around his waist like a holster and a knife on his calf. But you don't need a wetsuit or fancy gear to harvest sea urchins, he explained. At low tide on the edges of a bay, the sea urchin - a species of tide - should become visible.
Sure enough, within a minute of stepping on the rocks, I spotted my first sea urchin stuck to the side of a rock.
Sea urchins are essentially a ball of hard purple spines with five egg sacs, which we eat - in the culinary world they are described as tongues, roe, uni. I call it the tasty.
They don't have eyes or a brain, but they have mouths that they use to soak everything up in their own way, seaweed or otherwise. Bouzari calls them the "Roombas of the Ocean".
The sea urchin came off when I turned it like a doorknob. The triumph of my first harvest overtook any persistent painful sensations that arose from the prickly spines. Still, I would recommend gloves.
I'd brought a salted sourdough toast from San Francisco, and Bouzari quickly scooped a fat, golden tongue out of the hardened purple spikes to lay on the olive-oiled surface. I'd enjoyed Uni in sushi restaurants before, but never tasted anything like the salty creaminess of sea urchins fresh from the ocean on toast warmed in the California sun. That one bite felt like a calm summer day floating in the water on a boat.
Dragon eggs in the kitchen
Allegedly, if saving the kelp forest means eating more sea urchins, we must prove that not only can people afford to eat more sea urchins, but they can also easily prepare sea urchins themselves.
That means someone like me, who vomited in the middle of the newsroom on the first day of her dream internship because she ate undercooked chicken the night before, can harvest these creatures - which resemble evil dragon eggs - and manage to make a delicious, Homemade meal.
I was concerned about shipping a cooler full of purple sea urchins on the two hour drive back to San Francisco on Highway 1, but Bouzari assured me that the sea urchin would last for several days, especially if left in salt water. The best practice is to keep them chilled, Bouzari said with a damp cloth over it. "When it gets old it starts to smell like ammonia," he said.
OK, ammonia. I woke up on Sunday morning preparing for ammonia, a urinary odor. What I wasn't prepared for was the smell of farts. On Sunday morning I opened the cooler and was greeted with a cloud of gas. "Vivian!" said my husband and immediately accused me.
Fart jokes aside, it was Sunday morning and we were hungry. I wanted to continue on a simpler, dirtier rice trend and dig up a scrambled egg recipe from Gordon Ramsay. I found a pretty simple sea urchin bruschetta recipe by Robert Irvine before remembering that I hate cilantro and green onions and don't have lemon peel. "So are you making toast and sea urchins again?" my husband asked.
Left: After the reporter Vivian Ho dragged her transport home in a cooler, she precisely removes a kid's mouth. Right: The sea urchin roe becomes visible by opening the shell. "I call it the delicious," says Ho. Photos: Courtesy of Drew Bruton
Back at Timber Cove, Bouzari had shown me how to get yum out of shells with the finesse of a man who had done this many times. In my kitchen, I went to the kid with the grace of a drunken baby elephant who had somehow got a knife.
The first step in making a sea urchin is to cut out its mouth, which is hard and shell-like. If you practice this like bouzari you can wipe it all out at once. If you are me, you throw multiple mouths through your kitchen several times.
The next step is to drain the water. At the beach we emptied the water into the ocean and then washed it back in the waves. At home, I ran tap water into the hole where the mouth was and removed sand and sediment.
Bouzari showed me a move where he elegantly cut the kid in half so you could use the bowl as a bowl or candle holder after removing the roe. I hadn't mastered that. Instead, I cut off the urchin, which was jagged in the middle, sometimes just tearing it apart with my hands and spikes flying to the floor and into my sink.
Bouzari used a knife to pry open the digestive tract at each point. It was very clean and streamlined and from there he rinsed the bowl one more time and all that was left was the roe waiting to be scooped out.
In my kitchen, my two halves of the clam looked completely different - more like two handfuls of wrinkled spikes, seaweed, and roe oozing together. I couldn't find any points to loosen the digestive tract, so I just scooped everything out and washed the roe free of the seaweed. Bouzari insisted on telling me that eating the digested seaweed wouldn't harm anyone - it just doesn't taste very good.
It took me two hours to collect enough yum for five small crostini and to make six scrambled eggs. It felt like I had done a lot of work for very little achievement.
Bouzari had warned that this could happen to some of the purple sea urchins. While they are abundant, some don't grow big enough to be economically viable. Companies like Urchinomics have started collecting the purple sea urchins and then fattening them up for high-quality sushi restaurants.
Left: Vivian Ho's purple sea urchin butter noodles. Right: Sea urchin scrambled eggs with crostini.
But even the worst cooks can make butter noodles, and that's why I decided to release the dish for my final no-prescription urchin try.
I made spaghetti pasta and then made a simple sauce using olive oil, butter, garlic, lemon, and pasta water. I sprinkled some oregano, basil, chilli flakes, and sea salt before removing it from the stove and stirring in the urchin paste I made by taking the collected roe and mixing it together. I tossed the spaghetti in the sauce and put two tongues on each bowl.
I wasn't expecting much. The fart smell from the cooler (which Bouzari later assured me I didn't have to worry about) persisted even though we opened every window in our apartment and I stepped on a piece of mouth as I tossed the noodles. But these noodles were creamy and buttery with a hint of the ocean. Every bite bit back with brine and lemon brightness.
For someone who had been told their entire life that they couldn't and shouldn't cook, for the gastrointestinal safety of themselves and others, this dish felt life changing. It felt like a shining beacon into a tastier world, a victory for the culinary discerning people everywhere.
My husband said it was pretty good.
Smelly, frustrating, messy and ... funny
Even in the midst of the fart smell, I had started having fun. It got frustrating at times when all I could scoop out was a thin slice after struggling through clinging seaweed for minutes. But those moments always faded with the incredible satisfaction of pulling out that one fat, beautiful golden tongue.
I'm the type of eater who loves to work for my food, getting my fingers dirty and sucking the sauce on my face as I gnaw the meat off the bones. Some people don't. But for those of you who do, I can see how much fun it could be to pick sea urchins ashore in the afternoon and eat them over a toast on the beach, especially when you feel like you've done something good.
"This is the rare opportunity for our voracious instincts to have an arc of salvation," said Bouzari. “There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these purple sea urchins here than there should be. Do it. You literally could be harvesting more than you could eat and frankly harvesting more than you can eat is the in charge of what you can do. Just get them out of the water. "
What I've learned about eating from brat is that you really can't ruin something that is meant to be eaten raw. If you have to break a few dragon eggs to make an omelette, this is exactly the point. The goal is to get brats out of the sea. So break as many dragon eggs as you want.
After a day and a half of eating urchins, my husband asked that we not have them for a while. I'm already planning my next batch of butter noodles.
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