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Feasting on Uni

March 25, 2013

A few weekends ago, I held a small dinner party featuring Santa Barbara uni.  It was my first time cooking with uni so I felt honored that my friends trusted me to handle this delicate ingredient.    Uni, or sea urchins, is one of my all time favorite foods, whether cooked with pasta or enjoyed simply raw.  One of my favorite uni dishes is the sea urchin, crab and basil spaghetti at Marea.  Of course, only one course of uni is not nearly enough to satisfy my craving.  So for appetizer, I decided to try to replicate the uni and lardo crostini from Marea as well.

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After reading many various blogs, it seems that Eataly had the best quality to price ratio.  So I braved the weekend and tourist crowds at Eataly to secure the less than common ingredient and came away with four trays of wild Santa Barbara sea urchin along with other items on my check list, including lardo and fresh pasta.

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The lardo used in the appetizer was almost as hard to secure as the uni itself.  After wandering around the market a few times, I finally found the salumeria counter where they sold cured lardo by the slices. The fatback had been cured with herbs and sliced so thinly that they were translucent.  I kept them frozen in the freezer until the last minute because they will start melting almost immediately with your touch.

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I toasted the bread slices after brushing them with olive oil and rosemary.  After carefully layering on the uni and a thin layer of the lardo, I took the mini torch to the uni crostini.   As much as I tried, I had difficulty making these as beautiful as they are at Marea.  The lardo curled up instead of melting like a drape over the plump uni pieces.

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I finished the crostini with a sprinkle of coarse French sea salt and we dug right in.  Even though the lardo and the uni might seem like an unusual combination, the lardo was delicate enough to not overpower the uni.  In fact, I loved the little bit of smokiness that the heated lardo brought to the uni.  This was definitely a great way to enjoy uni as simply as possible.  I was so impressed by the lardo that we ended up enjoying a few more slices melted over bread with a sprig of rosemary and a drizzle of balsamic cream.  Dare I say this was better than butter?

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The meal continued with uni spaghetti with tomatoes and basil.  I decided to keep things simple and skipped the crab.  The sauce was relatively straightforward.  For four people, I used 2 trays of uni and four handfuls of fresh pasta.  With the addition of olive oil, garlic and lemon juice, the uni sauce came together quickly with my trusty stick blender.  After adding the uni sauce to the saute pan and quickly tossing with blistered heirloom cherry tomatoes and ribbons of basil, the pasta was ready.  Of course, we had to top it with a few lobes of raw uni so that the uni flavor was even more pronounce.

Even with so much uni for one night, I still crave that delicate sweetness and the luscious plumpness of the sea urchin.  Now that I realize how good affordable uni is in such close proximity to me, I might be feasting on them with a little more regularity.

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