The Wife is in the kitchen poking around in the refrigerator. She comes across a small Tupperware container containing a handful of what looked like small beige slugs. Or possibly the turds of very sick cat. Holding the container as if it were an unpinned grenade, she comes out of the kitchen with an unpromising look on her face.
Ah yes, I say. Don’t worry, that’s just some sea-urchin. The gonads of the sea-urchin, to be precise. Very popular in Japan, and actually some coastal communities used to spread them on toast like butter. Which is fascinating, don’t you think?
Wearily she murmurs a reprise of what I just said (“Don’t worry darling, those are just some fascinating sea-urchin gonads”) and gives me a careworn, cool stare. It’s a stare which says, precisely, “If you do insist on hiding food in the fridge, can’t you just make it a Snickers or two like a normal person?” The woman has a point.
Many people find the sea-urchin (or “whore’s egg” as it was once rather rudely known) to be an unattractive, even sinister creature. Covered in sharp spikes, except for the base which is punctuated by an angry little beak, it looks like something a medieval inquisitor might have used to goad a heretic’s private parts in order to extract a confession.
Open up the sea-urchin with kitchen shears and steady hand, and out spills a cupful of evil black goo which is – I’ve been told – semi digested seaweed. But be not afraid, for under this miasma you’ll find the good stuff: the pale, roe-like reproductive organs (a.k.a. the gonads) which taste briny and slightly fishy and excellent.
Until recently, I’d only eaten the creature in two places. Once in Tokyo, the world capital of seafood connoisseurship, which is a good place to eat sea-urchin. And once in Las Vegas, the world capital of mouth-breathing slot machine addicts, which is not. In Japan the sea-urchin tasted bright and smooth. But sat in the dungeon-like MGM Grand, in a fancy restaurant situated down the hall from a buffet whose signature dish is “Chicken and Biscuit Breakfast Muffin”, there the sea-urchin gonads tasted like…. well, how you would probably expect sea-urchin gonads to taste in the middle of the Nevada desert.
This sad episode aside, when I saw a cluster of proud specimens nestled on ice in New York’s best fishmonger the other day, I knew I had to take a couple home as my pets and eat them. As with any delicacy from the ocean floor, sea-urchins must be stored carefully. And that means in a paper bag with a few holes, placed on ice at the back of the lowest drawer in your refrigerator where it is coldest. Once you have prepared them, you may keep them in a tupperware container (in the fridge, obviously) for a few hours, but not much longer than that.
If you are a purist, by all means treat your freshly dismembered sea-urchin as sashimi (known as uni in Japanese). Or on triangles of toast, unadorned except for a squeeze of lemon. Or if you find the sea-urchin particularly challenging, then you can temper your discomfort by using them as a component in a larger dish, as I chose to do. I gave them a starring role in hearty seafood udon noodle soup. I am proud of this dish, which takes all of ten minutes and is my own work. What I love is how the delicate sea-urchin gently disintegrates into the hot soup, infusing it with the delicate essence of the ocean.
Seafood Udon with Sea-Urchin
- Fistful of udon, about 6 oz
- 2 cups Water
- 2 cups Vegetable stock. (You could also use chicken.)
- 3 or 4 shitake mushrooms, sliced
- 2 or 3 baby squid sliced into 1/2 inch pieces, and / or 3 or 4 scallops. You could also toss in a few uncooked shrimp.
- A baby bok-choi, separated into its leafs.
- Soy sauce
- Scallions, thinly sliced
- The flesh of a fresh sea urchin. Preparing them is easy: watch this video.
Cook the udon according to the instructions on the packet, drain, refresh in cold water, set aside.
Bring the water and the vegetable stock to a boil. The ratio of water to stock should be to your taste, because stocks vary in intensity to the barely noticeable to the overpowering.
Add the mushrooms to the stock / water, and let them boil for a minute. Then add the squid and /or scallops and / or shrimp and boil for another minute.
Add the bok choi leafs, for about 10 seconds. They cook almost instantly.
Remove pan from heat. Divide noodles into two bowls, and with a ladle add the stock / seafood / mushroom & vegetables.
Garnish with the scallions.
Add the sea-urchin, which will slowly fall apart and spread throughout the soup.
In common with Fox News, Justin Bieber and those funny little tassels which some men like to wear on their loafers, lobster is one of those things whose popularity I’ve always struggled to understand. I’ve tried, I really have. But lobsters – like Bieber – possess such an abundance of things to loath: the monstrous insect form, the writhing antennae, the diet of decomposing matter on the ocean bed, the inability to be farmed because they eat each others’ young.
And yet for all these turn-offs, this prodigiously sized cockroach is shorthand for refinement and gastronomic elitism. In Europe, at least, it is le beau monde on a plate. Growing up I came to believe that lobster could only be eaten by weathly, pink-faced fatties in the kind of restaurant where the sommelier wears a leather apron and a gleaming silver dome is brought tableside to reveal the giant arthropod steaming gently, cooked (per the 16th century French writer Rabelais) “red like a cardinal’s hat”.
This halo of inaccessibility meant that when I first visited the coast of Maine at the age of nineteen, I was astonished by the affordability of lobster and made up for lost time by gobbling two in a single sitting just to see what the fuss was about. I paid dearly for my enthusiasm. I thought the lobster meat tasted nice, but no better than crab. My novice fingers slipped on their barbed shells and bled. And after dinner, that night was a terrifying, sweaty ordeal as my stomach churned frantically to digest the overload of rich, buttery flesh. In a series of hysterical dreams I wandered – as if in a Hieronymus Bosch painting – across a barren landscape, set upon by terrifying, giant crustaceans in punishment for my gluttony. The next day I woke up exhausted, depressed, defeated. Since then I’ve always hated lobsters.
So when my father-in-law Bennett invited me to his house to cook some seafood on his Tuscan grill, I seized upon the opportunity to settle this old score and kill one of these creatures myself.
In most cases I’m one of those hypocritical, lilly-livered urbanites who is happy to eat all manner of animals as long as I’m not actively involved in the killing. I have no problem with you wringing the chicken’s neck or firing a bolt through the veal-calf’s head; I’ll just be at home watching Antiques Roadshow with a scotch in hand while you do the dirty work. This time, though, I was happy to strap on a pair and leave my cowardice (dressed as pacifism) behind: I’ve long despised you, lobster, and it was time for you to die at my hands.
That being said, the least I could do was award the sea-cockroach a quick and dignified death, so I researched the varying methods of painlessly killing lobsters. There seem to be three prevailing methods. An entertaining subway commute was spent pondering whether, if I were to be condemned one day for hideous crimes and sentenced to die, would I prefer to be (a) plunged into a vat of boiling water, (b) interred in a freezer until unconscious, and then dropped in that same vat of boiling water, or (c) have a knife plunged through my unexpecting skull, split in half and roasted on an open fire. Surely the correct answer has to be (c). (If you disagree, feel free to argue your case by leaving a comment below.)
I selected Bennett’s largest, sharpest cleaver. Then took the live lobster out of the bag where he’d been lurking since we’d plucked him from the local fish market where I’d watched him grub around moronically around his little pool.
Before placing him on the chopping block, I raised him to eye-level and looked him in the face. What I expected to discover, I’m not sure. Some strange metaphysical connection? A moment of ecstatic truth between two of God’s creatures which would prompt me to set the lobster free? But no, all I saw was a monstrous sea-insect, hideous on every conceivable level. My grip tightened on the cleaver, and my rictus grin hardened.
I flipped the lobster on its back and raised the blade. The lobster flung out its claws in a profane Christ-like pose. I swung the cleaver down through the vertical of its head, letting out a strange, primal shriek which sounded like it issued from someone else’s mouth, not mine. The lobster twitched a bit and died. I uncorked the bottle of rye whiskey I save in Captain Bennett’s kitchen for emergencies, took a long pull, and walked outside feeling somehow older, sadder, wiser.
The lobster now looking pleasingly like a Damien Hurst sculpture, I could now focus on the business of grilling. Of the many methods of cooking directly over heat, Tuscan grilling must be the most raw and elemental. There is no propane, no lids, no knobs, no gauges, no gadgets, no vents, no heat-storing ceramics. Just a metal grate, a wood burning fire, the food, and you. The lobster was joined on the grill by a majestic red snapper which was prepared thus:
- 1 whole Red Snapper. Bigger is better.
- Kosher Salt
- Bouquet of fresh herbs (we used parsley, sage, rosemary)
- Lemon juice
Get the fishmonger to gut, scale and clean the fish. Make three deep cuts through the fish on either side down to the bone. In the cavity of the fish, place the bouquet of herbs and a splash of oil. Rub some more oil over the fish (not too much) and sprinkle it with kosher salt & pepper. If you have one, place in a fish basket like the one pictured below. If not, double up a sheet of foil and puncture it many times to create lots of holes.
Light a hard wood fire. Let it burn down to hot embers, and place your Tuscan grill over it. If you have any woods like apple or peach those are great. We used dried vine cuttings from the vineyard which Captain Bennett overlooks. Rake the coals to get the desired spread of heat.
Place the fish on the grill (on top of the foil if you are using it). Keep an eye on it. Turn once. Use your judgment in terms of doneness. Remove from fish basket, pour a little more oil over the fish, squeeze some lemon over it and season more if you think it needs it.
Serve family style, with your diners helping themselves to the flesh.
As for Mr Lobster, we grilled him simply, resting on a piece of foil to catch the juices. The recipe:
GRILLED LOBSTER ON A TUSCAN GRILL
- A live lobster
- Some lemon
- Some melted butter
Kill the lobster by cutting it length ways with a large knife. (If you are a sissy you can get the fishmonger to do it for you by steaming it for a couple of minutes. If you choose to go down this route, be careful not to fully cook the lobster – you only want it to be dead, not done. Most of the cooking should be done on the fire.)
Light a hard wood fire. Let it burn down to hot embers, and place your Tuscan grill over it. Rake the coals to get the desired spread of heat. Place a piece of foil loosely over the grill and lay the two lobster flesh side down.
Cook until the shell is pink. Serve with lemon and melted butter.
As I become increasingly old and boring, my idea of a successful evening is braising a lamb shank and discussing with my son the relative merits of his favourite dinosaurs. But there was a time not too long ago when I was young and thrusting, and worked in a job which had me traveling the world.
Trips to Japan were a regular. These followed a pattern: Arrive in the morning. Work until almost overcome with exhaustion. Seek rejuvenation in cans of Red Bull and cups of green tea. Continue to work until early evening and complete incoherence. Embark on a riotous dinner hosted by our Japanese colleagues. Feast on endangered sea creatures, accompanied by beer, then sake, then shōchū, then scotch. Sleep five hours. Repeat.
After three or four days of this, on the final evening I would raise the white flag and – whimpering with jetlag – retreat to my hotel room to stare, glassy eyed, at the room service menu. I would order something, and eat alone whilst watching lunatic Japanese TV gameshows and feeling homesick. I’d then sleep fitfully until the first flush of dawn over the vastness of Tokyo heralded the start of a long journey home.
When you’ve lived with business travel for any length of time – especially the type which includes meals of live, wriggly things from the ocean floor – you begin to form an emotional attachment to the culinary sub-genre of room service. Certain dishes become your friend. Every room service menu in the world has a handful of items in common which transcend cultures and time differences: the Club Sandwich, Penne Marinara, and – most dear to me – the Caesar Salad. Wherever I was in the world, I would always order a Caesar. It became a ritual of almost liturgical importance, a familiar act to counteract the loneliness and fatigue of sitting in a far-flung hotel room watching TV in a language you don’t understand. (The Pavlovian hangover to this, however, is that I can no longer eat a Caesar without a lingering sense of melancholy and homesickness, and the strange desire to watch a Japanese gameshow .)
The Caesar Salad is one of those things which, unlike a Passion Fruit Soufflé or Lobster Thermidor, anyone can make. Which means the distinction is not that it has been prepared at all, but the care and attention to detail in its execution. What type of lettuce was used? What temperature are the plates? With grilled chicken or without? Anchovies, or no anchovies? Is the dressing fresh or from a bottle? (The answers to which are: romaine; chilled; without; if we are to be friends, then yes to anchovies; this final one I shall not even deign to answer, other than to say that real Caesar dressing contains five core ingredients, whereas the label of a supermarket brand I just examined lists twenty nine.)
Because Caesars but are easy to do but hard to do well, I have found the dish to be a window into a hotel’s soul. I have had wonderful Caesars prepared by fastidious chefs who cherish the details. And I have had Ceasars prepared by the lone hotel worker on the 2am graveyard shift (other duties include manning the front desk and cleaning the lavatories), whose low wages and misery are palpable in the clump of enervated greens and lick of plastic-bottle miasma which arrives begrudgingly at your door.
(Moreover, I’ve noticed that the Caesar is an accurate representation of national character. For instance: the Japanese, the world’s greatest engineers, create a very precise and meticulous Caesar. In Last Vegas, the several Caesars I’ve eaten were all generous and emphatic, but lacking in refinement. A Caesar I had in Paris in 2008 was just about alright, but channeled a reluctance to admit that such a great dish could possibly have been invented outside France. In 2010 I had a Caesar in Hamburg, but was so catastrophically drunk that its nuances are beyond memory. However if I had to guess, I’m sure it was text-book in preparation but rather lacking a sense of humour.)
So what are rules of a good Caesar? They are:
- Start with a head of fresh romaine lettuce. Discard those outer leaves that show even a hint of flaccidity or yellowness.
- Purists chill their plates. Obsessives chill the salad bowl, salad servers, and even the knives and forks (although I would suggest that such behaviour may also be a leading indicator of psychological problems.)
- Use dinner plates, not side plates. A Caesar should be big enough to count as a meal unto itself. It should not be considered an accompaniment.
- If you have the foresight, once you have washed and dried the lettuce in a salad spinner (or patted dry with paper towels) place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for an hour to crisp.
- Use freshly squeezed lemon juice, and nice big fat garlic gloves.
- Buy Parmesan in large chunks. Grate it yourself.
- If you have the energy, make your own croutons. Recipe below.
- Assuming you add anchovies, buy the tangy sharp white ones (commonly labeled “Boquerones”) from any decent Italian or Spanish food shop. The little brown ones found on pizza are too intense and salty.
- If you are pregnant or worried about eating raw egg, then this dish is not for you. Although it has been argued (semi-convincingly) that you can substitute the egg with mayonnaise.
- Only toss the salad at the last moment to avoid the leaves becoming limp.
With the above in mind, picture yourself in a hotel room six thousand miles from home, hungry and pining for home, and follow this recipe:
Classic Caesar Salad
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled, crushed with flat side of knife
- 1.2 cup olive oil
- 1 large head of romain lettuce, outer leaves discarded, rinsed dry, broken int bite-size peieces
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper.
- 1 large lemon, halved
- Lee & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 large raw egg
- 1 or 2 ounces of white anchovy fillets
- 1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
- 1 1/2 cups of Garlic Croutons (see sub-recipe below.)
Combine garlic and oil and let stand for at least one hour. Overnight if possible.
Toss lettuce (crisped in the refridgerator if possible) in a large salad bowl with the oil (the garlic discarded) nicely mixed. Season with salt & pepper.
Squeeze lemon to taste over greens, add several dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and break egg over top. Toss again, well.
Sprinkle with anchovies, parmesan and croutons and toss until combined. Serve with extra cheese and allow folks to add pepper themselves.
I am reproducing this excellent recipe, written by Ruth Reichl (former editor of the now defunct Groumet magazine, and former restaurant critic of the New York Times), word-for-word from a site called Gilt Taste. The original is here.
“Start with a fresh baguette, a hunk of sourdough (easier because you have less crust to cut off), or some sturdy country bread. Stale works too, but not so stale that it’s hard.
Shave the crust off of your bread and tear it into 1½-inch or so pieces. What you want is just enough bread to fit in one layer in a large saute pan, which should be about 3 cups.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. This is where you add whatever flavorings that happen to suit you; garlic is great. So are herbes de Provence, fresh basil, a little bit of cayenne – you know what flavors you’re craving. After you’ve infused the butter for a few minutes, let it cool until just warm.
Toss the bread with the butter mixture. Now give it a good squeeze, as if it were a sponge, so that soaks up all the liquid. It should feel soft and wet against your fingers.
Cook the dripping bread bits in the now dry pan, in a single layer over low heat, turning the pieces until they are a beautiful toasty gold and smell so delicious that they’re impossible to resist and you’re snatching them from the pan. Sprinkle them lightly with salt.
Toss the crisp croutons right into the salad, while they’re still warm, and rush the salad to the table. This is important—the contrast of toasty bread and cool greens is one of the things that will make this salad so special.”
- Gonads on toast.
- Cockroach Of The Sea.
- Caesar Salad: the taste of loneliness.
- Arrivederci Nonna.
- In defense of the Happy Meal.
- Fish Soup, and why the French are annoying.
- Baking turns me into Woody Allen.
- Tuber Magnatum: worth selling a kidney for?
- Off-piste Italian.
- The silliest meal of my life (followed by a good mushroom recipe)
- Summer’s nearly over. Thank God.
- Prozac, Xanax, Chicken Tikka Masala.