Sea Urchin Soufflé

This may seem like an obscure recipe, but sea urchins are back in vogue and they are not always eaten raw at sushi bars. I recently prepared this recipe in Galicia as a first course, before a lunch of lampreys cooked in a sauce finished with their blood (like a true coq au vin or jugged hare). But the first time I cooked a sea urchin soufflé was in 1975. Jim Beard had told me that if he had to choose four restaurants in the United States to revisit, they would be the Four Seasons and the Coach House in New York, Tony’s in Houston, and Chez Panisse—“but before writing this in my column I want you to cook for me out of your own home kitchen.” I didn’t have any money at the time, and didn’t have a home or a kitchen, but a rich Texan college mate of mine, John Sanger, had both, so I borrowed his.

I was very nervous to be cooking for Jim with no professional backup staff to make me look good; and up to the morning of the day of the dinner, I still couldn’t decide what to serve. I wandered around Chinatown in San Francisco, looking for my usual inspiration from the markets. When I saw several deep-sea urchins, each the size of a large grapefruit, I knew I must have them.

Once I bought them, I was faced with the problem of what to do with them. From somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind (perhaps from one of my favorite books, La Bonne cuisine du Comte de Nice by Jacques Médecin, or Jean-Noel Escudier’s La Véritable cuisine Provençale et Niçoise) came a memory of a recipe for sea urchin sauce that could be used as the basis for a soufflé. “Right,” I thought. “Soufflés they will be.” By the time all this occurred to me, it was too late to buy individual soufflé dishes, so the shells would have to do.

With Jim and the other guests waiting at the table, my heart was in my throat as I opened the oven door. But when I did, I saw the scheme had worked. The spines were intact, a wonderful ocean smell wafted into the kitchen, and best of all, the soufflé mixture had risen above the crater-like openings of the shells, puffy, pink-beige, and beautiful. I rushed them to the table.

Jim tried a spoonful. No word was said. He looked up slowly, fully aware of his massively theatrical effect and, rolling his eyes slowly around the room, said: “My God, that is the best thing I have ever tasted.”

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Ingredients

  • 4 large sea urchins
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup fish stock
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 egg whites
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Using scissors, cut a hole around the inside perimeter of the underside of each sea urchin. Discard the cut shell and clean out the inside of the remaining shell, leaving only the orange-colored roe that sticks vertically to the shell in sections.

When the shell is perfectly clean, scoop the roe into a bowl. When all the roe is out, rinse the shells thoroughly in cold water and dry the inside surfaces with paper towels. Puree the roe through a clean sieve.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To make the soufflé base, melt 1 ounce of the butter in a saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon of the flour and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring all the time. Heat the fish stock, add it to the butter-flour mixture, and whisk until smooth. Cook over low heat (or in a 325-degree oven) for 30 minutes, whisking every 5 minutes and skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Let cool to room temperature.

Beat the egg yolks with the pureed roe and mix into the cooled soufflé base. Rub the insides of the shells with the remaining butter and dust with the remaining flour. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, then fold them into the soufflé base and spoon that into the shells. Put the shells on a sheet pan (or in a pan with rock salt to hold the urchins steady if the spines are more than an inch long, the salt preheated for 10 minutes in the 400-degree oven) and put the pan in the oven. Cook until the soufflés have risen and are slightly browned on top, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

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