Saturday, February 21, 2009

Greek Cookbooks: Varoulko: Colors, Smells, and Tastes with Recipe for Sea Urchin Risotto (Ριζότο με Αχινό)

The sun is setting over ice-rimmed Turnagain Arm, the inlet I see out my Anchorage window. The snow sparkles in the setting sun’s reflection.

My body is here, but my mind is in Greece. I’m wading the shallows of a Northern Aegean island, a plastic basin of sea urchins floating beside me. It’s mid-February and the sea urchins are in their prime. Their tongues of “
roe” are plump and full; their flavor captures the sea’s pure essence.

Four master chefs
recently discussed what they wanted for their last meal on earth. For mine, I want a pile of just-harvested sea urchins, followed by a bowl of Lefteris Lazarou’s Sea Urchin Risotto, and then a few more fresh urchins.

Lazarou is the genius chef behind
Varoulko, one of the best seafood restaurants in Athens. He flawlessly cooks sea creatures and, right when their flavors peak, sends them to his guests. One summer night we went to Varoulko and ate under the open sky in an Acropolis-view roof garden. This was our menu:

~~ Whole Wheat Toasts with Sea Urchin Roe
~~ Filo-Crusted Sardines with Silky Smooth Eggplant Sauce
~~ Grilled Calamari with Feta and Wine Sauce
~~ Angel Hair Pasta with Grouper Cheeks, Fresh Oregano, and Tomatoes
~~ Braided, Grilled Garfish Drizzled with Smoky Fava Sauce
~~ Filo Napoleon with Custard, Figs, and Rosemary & Yogurt Sorbet


Because Lazarou focuses on seafoods’ essential flavors, his dishes aren’t overly fussy. To accompany the superb food, Varoulko’s list includes many Greek wines that pair well with seafood.

Varoulko is extremely expensive and not a place for everyday eating. If I want reliably good, reasonably priced, high quality seafood in Athens, I head to fish tavernas;
Logia tis Ploris and Trata o Stelios in Kaisariani are two of my favorites. Yet, for a special occasion, or just to be inspired by Lazarou’s skill, Varoulko is well worth a visit.

In 2006, Lazarou, working with Greek food writer Diane Kochilas, published his cookbook:
Βαρούλκο Χρώματα, Αρώματα και Γέυσεις (Varoulko Colors, Smells and Tastes) (available only in Greek). This may be the most beautiful cookbook I’ve ever seen. It’s printed on high-quality paper that showcases Vassilis Stenos’ stunning food porn. Subtle background drawings of fish, akin to holographic watermarks, grace every page.

Lazarou’s recipes are straightforward and, like the food at Varoulko, emphasize flavor over showy technique. Best of all, his brilliant recipe for Sea Urchin Risotto, the one I want to eat as part of my last meal, is in the cookbook.

If you’re in Greece, head for the shore to gather sea urchins during the next few months. After eating your fill of raw urchins, including a few extra for me, gather enough to take home and make a batch of Lazarou’s Sea Urchin Risotto. )

Those who don’t live near wild urchins can make Sea Urchin Risotto with roe
sold under the Japanese name “uni.” To find it where you live, locate a sushi bar that offers uni and ask for their source of supply.

Sea Urchin Risotto (Ριζότο με Αχινό)
Serves 4
Adapted from
Βαρούλκο Χρώματα, Αρώματα και Γέυσεις (Varoulko Colors, Smells and Tastes) by Λευτέρης Λαζάρου με Νταϊάνα Κόχυλα (Lefteris Lazarou with Diane Kochilas)
Depending on the season, it can take awhile to clean sufficient sea urchins for risotto. The dish is absolutely delicious when made with 1/2 cup fresh sea urchin roe, as Lazarou specifies, and decadent if 3/4 cup roe is used, as I admit to having done. The easiest way to warm plates is to microwave them on high for 1 minute.
Here are directions, with photographs, for opening sea urchins.

1 cup diced yellow onion, 1/8” dice
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt
Freshly crushed white peppercorns
1 cup Arborio rice
4 – 5 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 – 3/4 cup fresh sea urchin roe, carefully cleaned of all spines and grit, divided

Sauté the onions, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly crushed white peppercorns, in olive oil until they soften and start to turn golden. Stir in the rice to completely coat it with oil and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine, and stir until it’s almost absorbed. Add 1/2 cup stock and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until the stock is almost absorbed. Continue adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, and stirring while its absorbed, until the risotto is the consistency you desire; it should be moist and creamy, not dry. It takes about 18 – 20 minutes for the rice to cook.

When the rice is just done, stir in 1/4 cup sea urchin roe, and divide the risotto between 4 warmed plates. Make a shallow hollow in the center of each portion, and fill it with the remaining sea urchin roe, evenly divided.

Serve immediately.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
This is my entry for Bookmarked Recipes hosted and created by Ruth of Ruth’s Kitchen Experiments.

25 comments:

Peter G said...

I'll be honest and say I don't believe I've tried sea urchin..now I'm curious. And thanks for the link for the book Laurie!

Mediterranean kiwi said...

poor peter, you don't know what you're missing by not having tried raw sea urchin with lemon juice and olive oil drizzled over them...

wonderful reminiscences of greece in your post today. the weather we have been having certainly doesn't remind anyone of a summer in the mediterranean.

and you're right - i prefer to emphasize flavour rather than showy technique in my own meals

Bellini Valli said...

I musat say I have never had the pelasure to try sea urchin. When I next travel to Greece I will have to add it to my list of things to try:D

Mediterranean Turkish Cook said...

You know I never knew sea urchins were edible till I saw them on your post (Sea Urchins with Tips on How to Open Them) when I was going through your blog the first time I saw it. I remember these when I was a kid. We used to find these along the rocky shores of the Mediterranean and we tried to avoid them due to their spiky appearance. I don't think anyone over in my town ate them, but now I really have the urge to try them. In my next visit to Turkey, I'll see if we can find them.

Bijoux said...

Wow!! That is a stunning photo of the sunset through the glass orb!

Although I have never eaten sea urchin roe before, I know all about them from seeing my mother toss back the roe a la carte, while sitting on keros beach. I think I need to sample some sea urchin roe on my next visit to a Japanese restaurant. I'm going to have to show the photo of your urchin roe risotto to my mother.

The menu options you sampled at Varoulko sound incredible!! Maybe one day, while puttering around the Acropolis, I will splurge and try it out.

Peter M said...

Lazarou is the only Greek chef with Michelin stars and you know how he got them? By pushing the boundaries of Greek food, thinking outside the box and by not being satisfied with just mimicking the classics.

I adore achinoos and I will indeed take your advice and ask some sushi shacks where they get their uni.

This risotto is a sexy one!

Joan Nova said...

What a transportive post...I actually felt like I was in Athens.

Laurie Constantino said...

Oh Peter, you REALLY need to try urchins; they're amazing.

Maria, of course, we have totally different perspectives on what kind of weather is cold!!

Val, putting it on your list is an excellent idea!

Nihal, it would be interesting to hear if you ask around in your town whether anyone ate urchins. I guess because Greeks and Turks eat so similarly, it would surprise me (altho it's totally possible) if no one at them.

Bijoux, mmmm-mmmmm, uni sushi is my favorite, sometimes with a quail egg yolk. But still, nothing beats the flavor of urchins just out of the water. As always, your mother knows best!!

Peter M - yes, you are exactly right about the reason Lazarou has been able to create such wonderful dishes. Thinking outside the box is the way to go!

Joan, that is the nicest complement ever. Thank you!

Netts Nook said...

Can't wait to try just need to find the sea urchins. Thanks for sharing.

Maggie said...

I've only seen sea urchin in sushi. This looks like a beautiful dish. You make me want to see the cookbook, even though I wouldn't be able to read it.

LC said...

Yummy! I need to do some research on the sea urchin scene here in Puget Sound. There must be some foraging opportunities...

Lucy said...

That's an extraordinary image at the top there, Laurie.

Took my breath fair away!

Tay said...

I'm right there with you, Laurie...longing for Greece. As spring approaches, I remember 2 years ago, preparing for my trip to Lesvos. Looking the photos I took makes my heart ache in a very lovely way...

*sigh*

Someday I will make it back. And I am adding your Athens restaurant recommendations to my notebook for the future.

I'm off to Cozumel Mexico this April. Wonder if they eat sea urchins there and how they would be prepared? I'll report back!

Joie de vivre said...

How wonderful that you were able to find sea urchins to satisfy your craving.

Thank you so much for the encouraging words on my blog. The Greek food bloggers have been so wonderful and welcoming to me despite my unauthentic interpretation of Pastitsio!

Julia said...

That risotto looks so decadant! There's a Japanese market near me that sells sea urchin. It's fun to get your own fresh and clean it -- the shells are so beautiful.

Katerina D said...

This looks great.I can't wait for the summer to come. Yesterday it snowed here in Athens and today although the sun came out the cold is still penetrating

Cris said...

Oh I have tried before, but that was over 20 years ago and I can't remember what it tastes like... beautiful dish!

Michelle said...

WOW...I've not had sea urchin since we left FL! I'd forgotten all about it!!

I've got an award for you and it's in my Brown Bubble Frosting post. You can pick it up any time.

FoodJunkie said...

Laurie,
First of all congratulations on your Cook the Books club win. I thought you really deserved it. Your risotto looks really good, but although I respect sea urchin roe as a great delicacy, the smell of iodine really puts me off. If you would like some of the salep, I can send it to you. Just email me your address!

Dawn said...

as a kid I used to eat sea urchins raw. on our summers on a small island off the coast of maine we'd run to the shore line and pluck the sea urchins, open them up and eat them. I miss that so much, haven't done it in years. nowadays it's had to find uni (raw sea urchin) around here. I've found some decent places in nyc.
I would love to try this dish but haven't a clue where to buy fresh sea urchins around here. Looks good though, thanks for sharing.

Núria said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Núria said...

Oh My... Laurie! They are really the esence of the sea!!!! It's such a luxury to have a plate of sea urchins! And that rissoto is killing me.... sea urchins and rice in the same dish and I can die right after eating it!!!!

That first picture is soooooo beautiful!

Maria said...

I read your post a couple of days ago and failed to comment after being sidetracked by your links to Varoulko and Logia tis Ploris. I enjoyed axinous in Kalymnos but I've never tried looking in fish markets for them here...though I am sure they are brought in. I'll just wait for trips to Kalymnos to enjoy them ultra fresh and thoroughly tasty.

Laurie Constantino said...

Netts, I hope you find some sea urchins very soon!

Maggie, too bad there isn't an English translation of the book - it's full of good recipes.

LC, I grew up on Puget Sound (and am there right now) and it definitely has sea urchins. I believer there is even a commercial harvest in some areas of PS.

Lucy, that's the view from my bedroom window. That day, the sky looked like it was on fire.

Tay, you really took some lovely pictures of Greece - I've enjoyed them more than once. Can't wait to see some of your Mexico trip.

Joie, I'm an authentic schmauthentic person - what matters is whether the food tastes good at the end of the day.

Julia, you are so lucky to have a nearby source of urchin.

Katerina, snow in Athens in February - the world's weather sure has gone wacky.

Cris, that means you need to try it again!

Michelle, thanks so much for the award -- that is so sweet of you!!

Ioanna, thank you very much. If sea urchin roe is fresh, it doesn't taste of iodine. If you ever have the chance to try them straight from the sea, you might change your mind. On the salep, that's a very generous offer - thanks!

Dawn, seems like you should be able to find urchins someplace around Cape Cod. Your childhood summers sound wonderful.

Nuria, and no cheese!

Maria, the ones on Kalymnos will be way better than any you can find at a store.

manju said...

What a wonderful post. I have to admit, tho', that I"m glad I didn't read when it first posted in the depths of February b/c it would have killed me with the references to Greece and that fabulous menu from Athens. Would you believe I've always passed on trying uni on sushi -- not the next time!! Thanks for the inspiration.