Valentine’s Day is Wednesday, and though the hubs and I never celebrate with much fanfare, sometimes it’s a good excuse to cook a nice meal together at home.

Everywhere I go, people often ask if the hubs cooks at all. The truth is, he is a great cook. He is the workhorse behind all of my pop-ups from Houston to Hong Kong, and he’s the source most of our friends go to when they have culinary questions. (Maybe they all think I don’t want to talk shop on my off-time.) I trust his palate—I say he’s a bigger critic than Gordon Ramsay himself. And after I returned home after filming my season of “MasterChef,” I was so burnt out that the hubs had to take on kitchen duty for SIX MONTHS—no exaggeration.

I’m not exactly sure what we’re doing for V-Day this year yet, but here’s a great recipe for an impressive dish that’s not too difficult to whip up.

“Uni” is Japanese for “sea urchin,” and it’s one of those things that you either love or hate. I love uni, and I’m convinced those who don’t have had a bad experience with it in the past. I.e. They tried a not-so-fresh urchin that tasted like rot. The thing with uni is you have to have it very fresh; its shelf-life is teeny-tiny, so if you can’t eat it straight out of the shell like we’ve done in southern California, you’d better make sure you’re getting your uni from a reputable place.

At its best, uni is creamy and slightly briny. I describe good uni as tasting like butter from the sea. Bad uni—well, it tastes like spoiled rubber.

This is not to scare you off from attempting this dish at home. Chances are if you live near a Japanese or Korean market, you’ll be able to get pretty good uni from the frozen section. Santa Barbara, California, produces great sea urchin, but the most prized uni come from Hokkaido, Japan. You’ll clearly know the difference when you look at the price tag. When I last worked with uni, I found a decent selection at H-Mart.

The nice thing about this dish is most of the uni gets blended into the sauce, so it’s not like you’re taking mouthfuls of whole urchin tongues at a time. The first time I tasted uni carbonara, I had stopped in to Morimoto Napa after an event I’d done with Guide Dogs for the Blind. I’d just eaten right before dropping in, but I was told the uni carbonara was a must-try. And yes, it sure was.

I love a classic spaghetti carbonara already, and when you throw Japanese flavors and sea creatures into the mix, it’s almost transcendental. You get the comfort of the warm, creamy pasta crossed with the clean, funky taste of uni and seaweed. What’s not to love?

So this Valentine’s Day, try making your sweetheart/family/friends/whomever-you-re-spending-V-Day-with this delectable yet quick-to-prepare bowl of uni carbonara.

Happy cooking, and happy Valentine’s Day!

Recipe: Uni Carbonara

Notes: Make sure you buy the freshest uni you can afford. These are usually found in the frozen aisle of your Japanese or Korean market. You can find roasted seaweed (called nori) there, too—if buying the sheets, you’ll have to cut them up yourself; otherwise, buy them already shredded as I did.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 c diced guanciale or pancetta (approx 3 ozs)
  • 2 eggs + 6 egg yolks
  • 6 ozs uni “tongues,” divided
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 oz grated peccorino romano (approx 1 oz) + more for garnishing
  • 1/4 c grated parmigiano reggiano (approx 1 oz) + more for garnishing
  • 1 lb spaghetti pasta, cooked slightly less than al dente
  • Garnishes:

  • shredded nori (roasted seaweed)
  • finely chopped chives

Instructions

  1. Prep sauce: In a sauté pan over medium heat, heat olive oil and pan-fry guanciale until crisp, stirring frequently, approx 7m; transfer to platter, reserving drippings. In a jar or narrow container, combine eggs, egg yolks, and uni, reserving 4 tongues; purée with immersion blender. In a large heatproof bowl, whisk together egg uni mixture, butter, both cheeses, and ground black pepper to taste.
  2. Toss pasta with sauce: Transfer spaghetti to pan with reserved drippings, add guanciale, and stir to combine. Transfer to egg cheese mixture, add 1/2 c reserved pasta water, and stir to combine. Place over boiling pasta water to form bain-marie and stir until sauce reaches creamy consistency.
  3. Season with salt & pepper. Garnish with cheeses, nori, and chives. Top with uni tongue and serve immediately.

Active time: 30m
Total time: 30m
Yields: 4 servings

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