Originally published on Wine Enthuasiast
By Georgette Moger
The musky perfume of sea urchins (oursins, as they are called in France, or ricci, as they are known in Italy) can arouse a certain culinary provocation. This evocative echinoderm, whose edible parts are essentially its reproductive organs, has a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. Loaded with antioxidants and vitamins, the sweet orange meat of the sea urchin is as healthy as it is delicious.
It takes a delicate touch from a gloved hand to pull these treasures from the sea. With a slip of a small kitchen knife, the “lid” of the urchin pops off. The reward then reveals itself as a brilliant orange spread, with a texture like custard and an emphatically oceanic taste.
In Santa Barbara, sea urchin can be harvested year-round, though the prime season is November through February. West Coasters commonly savor uni neat as sashimi or sushi, or slather it on toast. It’s also great between strands of pasta, whipped into an omelet, or as part of an elevated guacamole.
One of the most rarefied uni offerings in Southern California comes from Niki Nakayama at her Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka.
“We use uni for both sushi and sashimi, but also as uni tempura, or steamed to create a custard,” she says. “I like to imagine using uni the way I use eggs—in a sauce, soft-poached with egg yolk and a frothy merengue.”
At n/naka, sommelier Jeffry Undiarto suggests pairing uni with Blanc de Blancs Champagne, Chablis or with a rich Junmai Daiginjo saké.
“Uni is such a prized delicacy because the yield from one urchin is so little—it only carries five lobes,” says Undiarto. “It’s something that has to be foraged for and is such a fragile ingredient. We source it from a local uni diver, Stephanie Mutz, who understands so deeply what a precious treasure it is.”
Mutz’s name comes up again at Connie & Ted’s, a West Hollywood restaurant where Sam Baxter, the executive chef, mixes uni into a feathery brunch omelet. Mutz harvests uni for at least two dozen restaurants between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
Mutz came to uni harvesting after she worked for 10 years as a marine biologist.
“I was trying to get my foot in the door teaching full-time,” says Mutz. “I spent half my days fishing, and half teaching. Unfortunately, the recession arrived shortly after I started teaching, and last one hired, first one fired—that was me.”
She took her fishing business full-time, partnering with commercial fisherman Harry Liquornik.
Mutz has urchin ink stains on her hands—an artist wearing the proof of her craft. “Catching and selling sea urchin directly to the consumer, where I know my product is being properly utilized, appreciated and not wasted, is the most honest job I have ever had, alongside teaching,” says Mutz, bedecked in miniature urchin earrings and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of her urchin harvesting company, Sea Stephanie Fish.
Though touted as an aphrodisiac, Mutz says the sex life of the sea urchin is relatively vanilla.
“Broadcast spawning,” says Mutz, shaking her head glumly. “Completely unromantic. When the urchin are stressed or agitated, or receive a lunar cue, it instigates the male to sneeze sperm and the females spew eggs. The fertilized eggs become urchins after growing a shell out of calcium carbonate. There’s no afterglow, but it gets the job done.”
Uni can be equal parts delicacy and pest, but both humans and otters are doing wonders to control overpopulation. Scientists have observed certain red sea urchins specimens with lifespans in excess of 200 years. You’d likely think a massive urchin would provide a plethora of uni, but you may not find a lick of it inside.
“Unless the water conditions have been cold enough for kelp to grow, and in turn for urchins to feed off it, the lobes of the urchin shrivel up,” Mutz says. “Sometimes it’s just big shell, no cojones.”
On the sea, I sip Sancerre while Mutz descends to the depths to fetch our uni lunch, attached to a breathing hose fed to her by our captain, Liquornik. She is armed with a GoPro, gloved hands and a mesh bag.
“On a perfect day, there is no wind or swell with 100-foot visibility and a lot of 3- to 5- inch urchins that are loaded inside with delicious uni,” she says. “Then there are days of terrifying wind and currents, and I am hanging on to the bottom of the ocean for dear life, trying to keep from getting slammed into rocks with my bag of spiky urchin following.
“If things go wrong and I’m not prepared, it can start to snowball into more dangerous situations.”
We’re a bit limited in how to eat the urchins Mutz catches. There is no pasta, toast points or eggs. So I learn how best to savor sea urchins: straight from the shell, garnished only with a natural luge of seawater.
Originally published in Santa Barbara
By Katherine Stewart
Photographs by Brian Hodges
Perched on the side of her boat, Stephanie Mutz fixes her mask over her sun-gold hair and adjusts the oxygen line. With a splash, she’s gone. For the next five hours, she will drift along the coves and inlets of Santa Rosa Island, deftly gathering sea urchins from their rocky lairs. By days’ end, she will have harvested 1,000 pounds of the spiny creatures, destined for the tables of some of the finest restaurants in the world.
The Santa Barbara Channel is a sea urchin’s idea of heaven. The rocky coastline, the kelp cover, and the mild water temperature—it’s just perfect. And a happy sea urchin is a tasty one. Those from Santa Barbara are widely believed to be the most flavorful and desirable in the world. Even in Japan, where the spiny animal is prized as a delicacy, “California Gold” fetches the highest prices. The fame of the Santa Barbara sea urchin is such that the name has been pirated. Unethical purveyors from Russia and Chile have taken to falsely claiming their inferior catches come from our fair waters.
Mutz has one of only about 120 active licenses to fish urchin in the state of California. She believes she is the only woman active in the field, which made her position for six years as president of the Commercial Fisherman of Santa Barbara even more remarkable. (She stepped aside last year.) The average fisherman is in his 50s or 60s; she is 36. But her reputation as an urchin diver is impeccable. Through her company, Sea Stephanie Fish, she delivers her goods—at around $5 per urchin—to some of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants, including The Hungry Cat, the dining room at Belmond El Encanto, the Four Seasons Resort Biltmore, The Lark, and Industrial Eats in Buellton.
Most Americans have yet to experience the delights of sea urchin while those who are presented with the opportunity sometimes have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea. For a small but growing number of diners, however, the briny, delicate flavor has become something of a delightful obsession. “People go crazy for sea urchin,” Mutz says. “They run me over for it!”
With her bright blue eyes, ready smile, and athletic build that speaks to years of outdoor—and underwater—activity, Mutz seems to have been destined for a life lived at sea. “TMI, but I was conceived on a boat,” she quips. “I grew up on the ocean in Newport Beach. I was taught that if you want to eat fish, you go out there and get it yourself.” Mutz received a bachelor of science degree in marine biology from UC Santa Barbara, then a master of science at the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. She presently works as a part-time professor at Ventura College, teaching classes in marine biology and microbiology. However, her main focus appears to be on her career as a fisherman, and most days she’d rather be in the water. As all sea urchin divers must, in order to obtain a coveted license from the state, she spent three years working as a deckhand before becoming the captain of her own vessel, a 20-foot Bellingham Workskiff, which she now keeps docked at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Diving for urchin is hazardous business. Strong or unexpected currents are one significant danger. Recreational boats are another, especially for the diver’s critical oxygen line. The sea urchins themselves can be, well, prickly, and if a spine gets stuck in a joint it can cause infection. And then there are the sharks. “The joke is: ‘If you see a shark, you’re not working hard enough,’” says Mutz. “Knock on wood, I’ve only seen one—a six-foot salmon shark. I just got into my boat and didn’t go back in the water after that.” There was, however, at least one sea urchin diver that didn’t get away. In 1994, an urchin diver named James “Weiner” Robinson was eaten alive at “Shark Park,” a ring of reefs and rocks off San Miguel Island. Now, every year, California sea urchin divers gather at Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant at the Santa Barbara Harbor to commemorate the event. “Urchin divers come from up all up and down the coast,” Mutz says. “We drink to Weiner. Then we tip one over to the shark as well.”
Fishermen’s camaraderie helps ease the challenges of a solitary and physically demanding life. Mutz typically leaves her house at 6 am and doesn’t return home until 8 or 9 that night. Then there are numerous state rules and regulations to consider. “You’re not allowed to fish without having someone place a market order, so I fulfill those first,” says Mutz. “I also sell directly to consumers. Then if there is any left over, I hand it over to the processors,” who put the urchin on ice and truck it down to processing plants in Los Angeles and San Diego, where the sex organs (the edible part of the animal) are extracted and soaked in preservative, sorted for size and color, then shipped to restaurants all over the world.
Chefs beyond the sushi bar are beginning to appreciate the culinary merits of this spiny sea creature, so it’s fortunate that it’s a resilient breed. Minimum size limits and limited fishing days protect against overfishing. According to Mutz, Santa Barbara fishermen are well aware of the delicate balance between harvesting and preservation that is necessary to maintain population stability. “Fisherman in Santa Barbara are some of the most well-educated, ecologically aware, and ethical people I know,” she says. “We’re not just a bunch of salty-crusty guys. We know we need to take care of the resource, or we’re out of a job.” Still, she says, turf wars are inevitable. “Outside fishing grounds, we’re the best of friends, but during fishing season it can be competitive,” she says. “If you’re not competitive, you’re not going to be a good fisherman, especially in Santa Barbara.”
Mutz has earned the trust of some of Santa Barbara’s top chefs, who rely on her to supply them with the precious ingredient. “Stephanie brings the freshest sea urchin,” says Belmond El Encanto chef Leo Andres Ayala, who has created a sea urchin dish with aji amarillo puree (Peruvian yellow peppers), citrus salad, and toasted brioche points. “I’d rather get my urchin from her because she can harvest according to a chef’s exact requirements as she is an expert in the sea urchin industry, both from a commercial and research standpoint.”
On occasion, chef Leo prepares a very rich bisque of sea urchin served in the shell and topped off with even more fresh sea urchin. He also enjoys preparing sea urchin topped with quail egg in a citrus broth, with a little scallion to cut the fishy flavor. Over at The Hungry Cat, where the animal is also served at the raw bar, urchin is the key element of sea urchin butter. And at Les Marchands, urchin is the secret ingredient of a notorious noodle dish so mysteriously delectable that it inspired weekly ramen nights on Fridays and Saturdays.
These days, there seems to be no limit to the reach of sea urchin cuisine. It is appearing in a number of unexpected places—including ice cream. “In
Solvang, chef Pink at Bacon & Brine does a sea urchin ice cream with caramel,” says Mutz, her bright eyes widening at the thought. “It’s so good!”
Originally published in Ecotrust
By Emma Deans
Fishermen are talking together more, working through issues, and coming up with resolutions. We’re becoming more formal with bylaws and insurance policies. We’d also like to engage more in marketing. But we want to keep our focus at the community level.
Stephanie Mutz was on track to becoming a professor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in tropical marine biology from James Cook University in Australia. But while her thesis was being reviewed she took a job as a deckhand and didn’t look back.
Mutz has operated her own boat, primarily dive fishing for urchins and snails, while also trapping fish, rock crab, spiny lobster, and Santa Barbara spot prawns. She now serves as President for Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, a non-profit organization that strives to create new models for collaboration by connecting fishermen with each other and with fishery scientists. CFSB is a member of the Ecotrust-backed Community Fisheries Network, which held its third annual meeting in March.
CFSB operates by the Golden Rule: only catch what you can sell. They partner with the Santa Barbara Fish Market, which is 200 yards from the pier and will fillet their fish for free.
While Mutz does serve as an adjunct professor of biology for Ventura Community College, her overall educational approach is grassroots. She holds a number of positions on advisory and executive boards, including serving as Co-founder for Santa Barbara’s first and only Community Supported Fishery.
Q. How is CFSB evolving?
A. Fishermen are talking together more, working through issues, and coming up with resolutions. We’re becoming more formal with bylaws and insurance policies. We’d also like to engage more in marketing. But we want to keep our focus at the community level. The largest boat size is 60 feet and we only have two of those; the average boat size is 30 feet. Inventory isn’t always consistent, depending upon the circumstances. We tell restaurants that a good way to think about us is don’t put us on the menu, put us on the chalkboard.
Q. What are the benefits of working with someone in Maine or Alaska, through the Community Fisheries Network?
A. Having a national network like the CFN provides a common ground—it’s a way to hear other people’s stories and issues and see how ours compare. If we’ve dealt with the issue here, we can provide advice to others and vice versa. The network provides strength in numbers and support for common struggles.
Q. What does your outreach to the community look like?
A. A number of CFSB fishermen talk to food clubs, at festivals, and to people who want to know more about harvesting/quirky biology about seafood. My passion has always been teaching, and I’ve realized that I prefer grassroots, organic education. I want to nerd out and tell people all the things they want to learn about.
When I first started outreaching to the community seven or so years ago, I was on my soap box, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do and I realized that I have to relate to people on their level. I’m still learning how to get my message out in language that is accessible to the public and sometimes I need to tone down my approach. I used to teach people how to fillet a fish and boil a crab on Earth Day. Some people had a visceral reaction to me killing food right there on Earth Day!
Q. Is there a good return on investment in outreach?
A. We’re seeing a lot more fishermen getting involved in direct marketing, but it is extra work. I enjoy helping people with strategy; I’d like to be a consultant for fishermen. There’s a communal nature to the industry—consumers like knowing where their food is coming from and fishermen like seeing where their food goes.
Click on the magazine cover to read the story
Originally published in Eat Drink & Be Merry
By Dylan James Ho
Up until a few years ago, my early images of Santa Barbara were rather narrow-minded and quite collegiate. I remember walking around UC Santa Barbara’s Isla Vista party zone with red solo cups held upside-down to show police that we weren’t publicly drinking. I remember seeing videos of bare-footed, stoned fans rocking out to Jack Johnson’s sleepy, mostly boring, jams at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Oh yeah, and one of Father Serra’s crumbly missions built centuries ago. As I grew older, I no longer thought about that once I discovered the benefits and joys of gratuitous wine tasting in Santa Barbara’s surrounding areas of Santa Ynez, Santa Maria, Lompoc and Los Olivos. In less than 2.5 hours, you can ditch your miserable 9-5 and get a taste of the affluent life for chk-chk… nothing. For many Southern Californians, Santa Barbara makes for one of the best weekend getaways, especially for me and Jeni. It’s our Napa Valley, minus the stuffiness and arduous drive. But on our most recent trip to Santa Barbara in November, I had a different idea of Santa Barbara. I couldn’t think of anything else but one thing that people either love or hate (mostly hate): sea urchin. The Japanese call it uni, the Spanish call it erizo de mar (“hedgehog of the sea”) and the Italians call it ricci di mare. In Maine, they were once referred to as “whore’s eggs”. Nothing starts my day like a fresh bowl of whore’s eggs. And worldwide, it’s known simply as “delicious”. Over the last five years, I had grown not just a liking, but a passion for all things uni. Any time I see uni on the menu, I’m going to order it, no matter how bizarre it sounds. I’ve had it as sashimi, as sushi, in pasta, in croquette form, as a flavored Japanese snack and if I remember correctly, even as ice cream. But I haven’t eaten live Santa Barbara. I had live Russian uni in Hakodate, Japan (Hokkaido) and it was one of the most amazing breakfasts one can have. While San Francisco has their luscious oysters of Tomales Bay, Santa Barbara has their delicious, spiny offerings. Almost all uni you eat in Los Angeles will be shipped from Santa Barbara, according to the many sushi chefs I’ve asked. So the time has come to go straight to the source.
Before I move on, does anyone not know what uni is?! Uni consists of the gonads (reproductive organs) of the sea urchin and it’s highly prized in cuisines all over the world. It is sometimes mislabeled as sea urchin “roe” – they’re not eggs! The sea urchin is a ball-shaped critter with hundreds of spines that are usually 1? in length, and sometimes up to 4? in defense mode. I myself have seen some LONG spines while diving in the Caribbean – like 6?-8? and didn’t bother trying to capture it! It belongs to the echinoderm family like sand dollars and sea stars and enjoys feeding off algae and kelp. Whoever first ate the gonads of the sea urchin was one hungry man, like the first guy (probably an Arawak) who first cracked open an oyster. Once you cut those spines off, the sea urchin is at your mercy.
On an early Saturday morning, Jeni and I took off on our bikes and rode around the Downtown area of Santa Barbara. It’s one of the best ways to enjoy Santa Barbara. People are running along the beach doing healthy stuff, checking out the farmer’s market, probably lighting up some herb and just enjoying the sun. I had heard the Santa Barbara pier was a good spot for seafood naturally and I looked up this place called Santa Barbara Fish Market, making that our first destination. Like a fat kid with $2 running after the ice cream truck, I quickly found the tiny seafood market and parked my bike. Eager, I looked in all the cases and tanks… shit, no uni! The guy working there had no idea when the next shipment would come in. I knew places like the Hungry Cat or various SB seafood markets would technically be offering live sea urchin due to its location, but after calling around, it didn’t seem people really knew, or even cared for this spiny delicacy. Jeni laughed when she saw my look of disappointment. But then, the food gods showed us the way. As we were getting back on our bikes, we saw some people huddled around some folding tables down by the dock. And we found our savior standing around three plastic tubs containing uni. Our savior came in the form of a white guy in his 40s, wearing a visor, sunglasses, T-shirt and Levi’s. “And what is thy name, oh Lord of uni?”
“I’m Harry Liquornik and I’ve been diving for sea urchin for 25 years.” “Liquor” rhymes with “occur”, not the booze. And he’s also known locally as “Harry Urchin”. Harry Urchin and sometimes another diver hop on a boat around 6 am three to four times a week to dive for uni. Depending on the season, they’ll sometimes head north for 2-3 hours by boat towards some islands off of Santa Cruz and Santa Maria and dive for urchin there. Harry states that June and March is the general uni season in California, with August, September and October being the most lucrative time for harvesting. The sea urchin tastes best during those three months since they are very “hot and bothered” (swollen gonads).
Harry charges $5 per sea urchin and this is a steal considering some restaurants may charge $15 for one. And if you buy two, Harry will hook you up at $8. “Two please. Two massive ones.” Harry went looking through his various containers, picking each one up and comparing it to the next until he found me two delectable ones. Harry says he’s seen some bigger than basketballs once the spines have been cut. Whoa!
Harry then brought out his state-of-the-art “uni cracker” that would reveal the sea urchin’s jewels of masculinity/femininity and forfeit them to human consumption. He turned the sea urchin over on its top side and placed the cracker jaws right over the mouth. I could see the spines slowly moving, knowing very well what was about to happen. Gripping the cracker with his left, he pounded the handle with one blunt hit with his right palm. Whack! The jaws immediately broke through the thin shell and sunk into the cavity of the sea urchin, slightly cracking it and spilling out some liquid. Then he gripped the clamp handle of the cracker which spread the jaws outwards and the sea urchin was completely halved.
The first thing I saw upon cracking the sea urchin open was the beautiful golden gonads. It was a eurekamoment. It was the same exact thing us uni-lovers couldn’t wait to eat at sushi bars. The uni was simply beautiful in color and reeked of the salty California waters in a good way. Contrary to looking at the entrails of a mammal or fish, the sea urchin was a rather beautiful thing to look at. The colorful purple spines, the golden gonads, the various colors of digested kelp that almost resemble orchids. With a plastic spoon, Harry began to do the “dirty work” by pouring out the contents of the cavity and pulling out the intestines and tubes. Once those are gone, there’s only one thing left to do: eat the uni. Sea urchin has fivefold symmetry with a total of five gonadal “clusters”. Each piece of uni can range anywhere from 40-60 calories, safe to say one piece of uni sushi is 80-120 calories plus rice and nori. So imagine how many whole sea urchins are needed to fill up ONE of those wooden uni trays. With the plastic spoon, I scooped out the uni like it was ice cream. Some of the spines were still moving!
It is nearly impossible to detect the sex of the urchin. I found a site quoting, “roe from female sea urchins were commonly associated with sulfur odor, bitter taste, and metallic flavor, while roe from the male sea urchins were associated with sweet taste.” See, males are generally sweeter than females. But really, it doesn’t matter – what matters is the taste. Forrest Gump could very well have replaced his chocolate box/life analogy with uni. Depending on the water temperature, size, month and state of libido, each uni will in fact taste different and you really don’t know what you will get. I typically enjoy sweet, creamy, custard-like uni as opposed to the sometimes metallic uni. The sea urchins I had this day were perfectly sized and had a good amount of creaminess and brininess. But both were very different in flavor profile. I’ve eaten enough uni to experience a “bad uni day” and this was definitely not one.
I noticed that the uni Harry had had larger clusters versus the smaller-clustered uni I’ve eaten in sushi restaurants. He said that the larger the sea urchin, the larger the uni but you really don’t know until you crack it open. On any given dive, Harry can range anywhere from 80-120 sea urchins. From there he sends them to a processor which finds all the “A” grade uni and delivers them to sushi restaurants. These are typically the small-clustered ones. He also noted that the Japanese chefs are extremely particular with their uni. Japanese? Picky? Really?
Harry typically sells his catch on Saturday mornings from 6 am – 10 am right on the dock. If you’re using Google to locate Harry, I recommend searching for the Santa Barbara Fish Market or Brophy Bros., which by the way has some really decent clam chowder. This is not located at Stearns Wharf but by all the boats. Harry Urchin has graciously offered his contact for those that are serious about eating live sea urchin. Give him a call prior to heading up to Santa Barbara to see if he has a catch. He is also down in Santa Monica on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to sell his catch to restaurants like Hungry Cat and various sushi joints. He can arrange a meet up to sell his spiny delicacies. Come say hello to Harry Urchin and let him know that you read about him – he’ll be stoked!
If you’re new to uni, I highly recommend giving this amazing delicacy a chance. It’s the best. Thanks for reading.