Casting a wider net for your palate could mean incorporating uni into your diet
By Brook Larios
For most of us, the dining out experience goes something like this: Review dining options, select a restaurant, arrive and review the menu, select a dish, wait patiently, receive the dish, eat. What’s missing from the equation is a firm knowledge of where that food comes from. That topic is arguably most important when it comes to seafood. Enter Mitch Hobron and Peter Halmay; affable enough sounding names, sure, but who are they and why should you care?
Mitch and Peter fully comprehend the merits of living on the coast of the country, aside from pleasant ocean breezes and the ability to make quick jaunts to the beach. They’re local urchin divers and, for those who don’t frequent Japanese restaurants and adventurous eateries, urchin— or uni— is quickly becoming the hot ticket. Culinary Trends Magazine, an industry publication that follows and shares restaurant trends with chefs across the U.S., devoted this month’s issue to the spiny crustacean. Chefs are becoming increasingly interested in this wild-caught, sustainable treasure. They are sustainable because they eat very few other living animals, meaning when you eat them, you’re not, in turn, eating several servings of other sea creatures. Most of the uni’s livelihood occurs on its underside, where its mouth and tiny tube feet are located. It may look daunting but when prepared correctly—or even left alone—it’s delicious.
Peter began diving for uni in 1972, far before eating it was en vogue. He and Mitch, who began diving after leaving a more typical career path, hit the waters each morning, often hand-delivering their catch to local restaurants and forward-thinking companies like Catalina Offshore Products, a Linda Vista-based wholesale operation specializing in locally-caught seafood. It’s open to the public seven days a week during a window of specific hours. For more information, visit www.catalinaop.com.
If you like eating seafood, urchin is a good alternative to the overfished sea creatures typical to American cuisine. We’re undoubtedly a culture of people who like eating big fish, like salmon and tuna, often unjustly balk at the likes of sardines, herring, anchovies and other diminutive swimmers. We have to get over it. Blame commercial fishermen for overfishing, but equally guilty are our discriminatory (not to be confused with discriminating) palates.
Thinking you’d like a nice shrimp dinner? It’s so easy to prepare, right? Most store-bought shrimp is raised on destructive farms or, if wildly caught, still bears the guilt of ample by-catch: other sea creatures caught in the large nets used to dredge the ocean. By-catch is typically unceremoniously disposed of.
San Diego’s urchin, by comparison, is hand-caught by Mitch, Peter and other cats that care about the future of our oceans. No by-catch, no parting with scruples. It’s arguably some of the best in the world, so no compromising quality. And it’s available year-round, so you have ample time to warm up to the taste, if you haven’t already. Some chefs transform it into bisque. Others opt for a more natural preparation. When served raw in its shell with sea salt and lemon, its divinity can’t be overstressed.