Monday, September 15, 2008

Sea Urchins with Tips on How to Open Them (Αχινός)

(From Greece)

Spiky sea urchins may be a bather’s bane, but their freshly gathered roe tops my list of favorite foods.

Urchin roe tastes unmistakably of the sea and has a unique sweetness that can’t be duplicated or satisfactorily described in words. If you love seafood and have access to fresh sea urchins, put aside any trepidation about their prickly spines and jump at the opportunity to enjoy their wonderful flavor.

On the island, urchins are best gathered in February, March, and April. In these months, the sea is cold by Aegean standards and the coral urchin roe, the edible part adhering to the inside of their domed shell, is plump and ripe. Urchin roe is especially prized as a superb and permissible treat during the long Lenten fast.

We’ve enjoyed several springs on the island, but we’re usually here at summer’s end. The days are still hot, gardens are abundant, and the sea is warm. We wait with the parched land for the change of seasons and the fall rains. It’s not prime sea urchin time, so it takes three times as many to make a satisfactory serving. No matter, we still gather enough urchins to remind our taste buds of their exquisite flavor.

Last night the winds were calm, the moon was full, and cousins Giorgos and Tzani invited us on a nighttime urchin expedition.

Agios ErmolaosOur destination was a small church overlooking the sea. On arrival, the men changed into wading gear. Armed with a “louks” (λουξ - a bright kerosene lantern), and “kalamis” (καλάμι – a long bamboo pole split on the end and spread to form two springy fingers that can be pressed over the sea urchins’ spines to pluck them from the water), they entered the sea.

Tzani and I spread out a picnic dinner on the church veranda: perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes, slices of homemade cheese, olives, anchovies, fried peppers, fresh bread, homemade wine, and ouzo. Tzani confided she’d brought extra food in case the men had no luck. We chatted in the moonlight, catching up on the year’s happenings.

Rocks at Agios ErmolaosWe watched the bright lantern light slowly move in the shallows along the rocky fingers that reach out to sea from the church. Men’s voices and snippets of conversation rolled over the water, “be careful, a ledge here…”, ”it's slippery there...”, “that’s a big one…”, “bah, that one’s no good…”, “Wait… Wait… don’t move! An octopus… its legal! Got it.” “Bravo Kapetanio!”

After an hour or so, the men were back, puffed with pride and their catch: two tubs full of urchins, two octopus (about which I will write later), and an incidental cuttlefish. The extra food that Tzani tucked into the picnic bags wasn’t needed last night; the men had been lucky and there were plenty of sea urchins to open.

On the still warm night, under a full moon, with a sky full of twinkling stars and lights from distant jets ferrying strangers across the world, we set upon a meal superior to any served at the finest four-star restaurants.

Opening Sea Urchins Step 1Opening Sea Urchins - Step 1

Opening Sea Urchins Step 2Opening Sea Urchins - Step 2

Opening Sea Urchins Step 3Opening Sea Urchins - Step 3 (Sping-gathered Urchin)

There are several ways to open urchins. The simplest is to plunge one tine of a dinner fork through the shell near the urchin’s mouth and work the fork around in a circle, like an army-issue can-opener. When the circle is complete, the entire bottom falls away.

The urchin’s insides, mostly partially digested seaweed, are usually shaken-out and discarded, though some like to sip the liquid inside the shell. Any remaining membranes are carefully teased away with the back of the fork.

Some people prefer to use an old knife or specially designed urchin-opening scissors to get to the roe, but a simple fork works just fine. If, like me, you have soft hands and don’t want to risk being impaled by urchin spines, wear a sturdy glove on the hand holding the urchin.

Most islanders drizzle opened urchins with few drops of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or dash of vinegar. Then, with the spiny delight upturned in one hand, they take a square of freshly cut bread in the other and in one swift swirling motion mop up all the savory goodness and pop it into their mouth. I prefer sea urchin roe plain, so lift out each little tongue of colorful roe with a teaspoon, the better to enjoy sea urchins’ unadulterated flavor.

In Greek seafood tavernas, one can sometimes order fresh sea urchin salad (Αχινοσαλάτα), a plate of sea urchin roe dressed with a dash of oil and unobtrusive squeeze of lemon. If you close your eyes when you place a bite of sea urchin salad on your tongue, you can spirit yourself to the veranda of a tiny countryside church, with moonlight sparkling off dark waters, and savor one of the world’s most delicate and complex flavors.

Sea Urchin Salad - Achinosalata (Αχινοσαλάτα)Sea Urchin Salad (Αχινοσαλάτα) at Logia tis Ploris seafood taverna in Athens
(Photograph from Logia tis Ploris Website)


Anonymous said...
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Maria Verivaki said...

my favorite meze in the summer - wonderful photos of your little neck in the woods, souonds like you're having a glorious summer.
can't wait for the octopus post - we often eat octopus, but never fresh, so the way you handle it is going to be interesting...

Anonymous said...

The photos of hands holding sea urchins totally scared me until I realized that it's not like sea urchins can shoot their spines into a person. It's all a matter of pressure. I've been afraid to touch them but now I realize that if I don't make a point of impaling myself, I'll be okay.

I hope I find myself in Greece at a good time to try this out, sometime in the next few years.

Thanks for answering all my questions about this, Laurie.

Peter M said...

The man holding the sea urchin with this bare hands is a brave individual.

These are so "fruits de mer" and I did try catching my own (summer) and the contents (roe) were sparse. Nowhere near as juicy as in your photo.

Riana Lagarde said...

wonderful story, i feel like i was right there with you, now, if only i could taste it too. i have only had them once and now i really want to have them again. beautiful photos as well, all my best to you!

Mike of Mike's Table said...

That's really interesting and an experience I've never had...yet. I'll have to try this one of these days. Also, great photos of the process--I would have been very lost once the urchin was opened otherwise

Cheryl said...

What a great experience... I love the pictures! I do feel as if I missed out in trying them earlier this summer but I know that I'll have another chance in the near future. It's so fun to read about your adventures!!!

teeny said...

the photo at Logia tis Ploris of the urchin dish is the best photo you've taken to date. color, highlight on the dish, fork in the background, it's excellent. Miss you madly.


teeny said...
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Joanne said...

Laurie, You may find this strange but I have never eaten sea urchin roe before. I have eaten all kinds of fish roe and crab roe, and shrimp roe and but was always afraid to try sea urchin roe. My mother on the other hand, is a big time sea urchin aficionado and will eat the roe a la carte straight from the ocean. She uses a stick to open it up and tosses back the content of the urchin's cavity...gooey green stuff and all!

So how is Calliope doing? Any good restaurants I should know about for my future visit? I know that Stelios R. (the musician) has open up some kind of a cantina on K**os beach. I'm assuming it is now closed for the season.

Núria said...

Laurie... I just LOVE the way you write!!!!! I feel I'm there too! What a precious night and what a delicious capture :D.

We call Sea Urchins, erizos de mar, they taste sooooooooooooo good! It's such a delicacy.

Thanks for sharing such great moments with us. Here you have something waiting for you♥ :D

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

I haven't had the roe of a sea urchin...I will add it to my evergrowing list of things to try:D

Laurie Constantino said...

Maria, we really are having a good time. The octopus turned out well - now I just have to find time to write about it...

Lulu, yes, pressure is the issue. I can hold sea urchins without a problem, but I either use a glove or a folded napkin to protect my hand when I'm opening them. Most people here use their bare hands, but I'm too much of a wuss.

Peter M, the photo is juicy because the urchins were gathered in spring. This time of year you never see that many eggs in an urchin.

Riana, thank you! We gathered a bunch of figs yesterday and it reminded me of you so I was telling my husband about your life - were your ears burning??

Mike, I don't know if there are urchins in Florida or not - there definitely are in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I'm confident you'd love them!

Cheryl, try an urchin expedition during next year's lent - it's a lot of fun.

Teeny, I'm way missing you. What a time to be gone from Alaska, given our the adventures of our Governess. As for the picture, sadly I didn't take it - it's a picture from the Logia tis Ploris website, no doubt taken by a pro. I wish I'd taken it!

Bijoux, I'm definitely surprised you haven't tried them. I'm also surprised your mom eats the green gooey stuff - she's a bold woman! There's lots of new construction on the island, and the roads are being continually improved. We tried to go to the Stelios place but it was closed, so we went to the place nearest the limani and my oh my did we have good food. Gigantes Salata, Grilled Sardines, Horiatiki Salata, Grilled Octopus, and fries. I've never had bad food there.

Nuria, thank you!!! I'm glad to hear you love my favorite sea urchins. My sad news is that I've tried and tried to get your page to open, but on dial-up it just won't load. :-( I'm very sad about it, especially because I'd love to pickle some sardines. I'm going to keep trying, but it may have to wait until we get back to Alaska and DSL. :-(

Val, since it's my favorite, I definitely think you should give it a try. There's sea urchins in the water between Vancouver Island and the mainland, so maybe you should organize an outing to find them!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, with that setting and the freshness of every thing at your table, no restaurant could even come close! What a store of wonderful memories to bring back to wintry Anchorage!