I was initially intrigued by sea squirt because I had passed it in the Korean market and not once had I seen even the most wizened old crone pick one up. This was strange to me for two reasons. 1) Little old Korean ladies are always buying things like tripe, chicken feet, and massive jugs of mystery goo, and 2) that place looks like a swap meet for the Asian-American Centenarian Club. Sea squirt's unpopularity at such a venue indicated to me that it is indeed an odd food.
The sea squirt/ascidian, or Halocynthia, is a marine invertebrate filter feeder that preys on plankton in cool, shallow water. This hermaphroditic critter is eaten all over the world, but mainly in Japan (as "sea pineapple"), Korea, Chile, parts of Aboriginal Australia, and Europe, under the entirely more appetizing moniker "sea violet."
Traditionally the sea squirt is eaten raw, over rice, or in heavily spiced stews, so at first I figured I'd stay the course. It was, however, very difficult to find anything about the preparation online and certainly in none of my cook books. When inquired about a recipe, the snarky teenager at the seafood counter scoffed at me like cooking sea squirt was as natural as his emo haircut and then mumbled something entirely unintelligible. Upset that I clearly just got punked by a pimply sixteen-year-old who listens to bands like The Promise Ring and knows the names of multiple mascara brands, I hastened back to HQ.
Boom. A sea squirt. The smell was quite fishy, which instantly made me wary. Typically when buying seafood or choosing a life partner this odor indicates that freshness is a no-no. But hey, this is a sea squirt, and who was I to say this was a bad thing? The sea squirt's texture and color were very similar to that of a toad. And by that, I mean disconcertingly bumpy and brown (or deep umber if you want to get all fabulous about it.)
I began the dissection process. Now The Ivory Dragon is absurdly sharp and responsible for numerous hunks of skin missing from my fingers, so when I couldn't crack a dent in the "shell," my first thought was similar to that of Mama Cass's probable last: Clearly, I have bitten off more than I can chew. The only thing interesting was that certain orifices were releasing...yep, you guessed it, squirts of a clear liquid. So I changed up my strategy and tried the hairy left side (see picture) or what I like to call the merkin end. Butter.
Interestingly, the "shell" came off like the skin of a mango, revealing the rubbery inside and a whoooooole lotta juice. Here's the mess in all its glory:
No, this isn't your baby cousin's latest bowel movement after happening upon that unsuspecting gallon of Plenty of Pulp Tropicana. The bottom yellow...thing is the "edible" part. Upon first taste, I was quick to disagree. I read somewhere the Japanese ate sea squirt raw, so I crossed my fingers and dove in. The juice itself was briny and not unlike that of an oyster. The innards were tangy and almost caviar-like. The flesh itself was soft, slightly rubbery, and overwhelmingly soapy tasting. Now unless you're like my brother, whom my family suspects developed a four-letter lexicon at a young age because he just couldn't live without the ever-so-fresh tang of Irish Spring, the taste of ammonia is decidedly off putting. It was at this point I figured I'd hide the sea squirt in a cheesy mass of homemade pizza. How can pizza be bad, right? Plus, I'd already made the dough the day before.
White Sea Squirt Pizza
No Need to Knead Pizza Dough
1/4 tsp. dry active yeast
1 1/2 C. tepid water
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. sugar
2 T. olive oil
3 C. flour
corn meal, as needed
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir with a spatula. The resulting dough should be slightly stiff and very sticky. Cover the mixture with Saran wrap and let it sit and rise for 12 hours. After this period, heavily dust a counter top and your hands and pat the mixture down to release the air bubbles. Quarter the dough with a pastry cutter or knife and form balls, keeping the "tucked" end down. Roll the balls out to a 8-10" round/square with a floured rolling pin. Apply corn meal liberally to an oven pan and slightly to the top your crust. Placing corn meal against corn meal, set your pizza crust on the pan. You're now ready to go.
Pickled Sea Squirt
3 sea squirts, julienned
2 C rice vinegar
1/3 C sugar
Pickling Spice Mix:
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. coriander seed
3 bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
10 whole white peppercorns
1 tsp. whole allspice
1 tsp. whole clove
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 large nub ginger, cut into coins
Add all the ingredients other than the sea squirt and bring to a simmer for 2 minutes. Add the sea squirt and simmer for 20 seconds. Drain, rinse, and dry.
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 T. oregano, chopped
1 T. garlic, minced
handful of arugula
5-6 deli-style slices Monterey Jack cheese
large handful of Asiago cheese
pickled sea squirt, as needed
kosher salt & cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450. At an extremely light simmer, saute the garlic and oregano in the oil until the garlic is translucent. Apply the oil very lightly to the top of the pizza dough. Season the dough with salt and pepper, then layer with the Monterey Jack cheese. Layer then with the sea squirt and the arugula and finally finish with another layer of Asiago cheese.
I'll be honest: I didn't really have the cojones or confidence that the squirt would be masked even by the cheese and garlic at this point. I wussed out and layered one half of the pizza. After 8 or 9 minutes in the oven, I removed the pizza and voila!
I was right: it was still impossible to escape the soapiness of the sea squirt. But hey, at least the other half was good! The chances of me eating this over rice or raw again are akin to that of me surviving a maximum security prison yard after arguing with a guy named Lord Shank over which bunk I'd get, but in retrospect I would probably eat it in a cioppino or bouillabaise.
Next post: Chicken feet.