Before we dive into the startling awesomeness that is calamari, let me just say I had a good reason for not writing for awhile. Actually that reason is about the size of a little kumquat now, and probably wondered why the heck Mommy was eating squid to begin with. Yup, you heard it here, I’m officially pregnant. With child. Expecting. Knocked up. Bun in the oven. You get the gist.
So forgive me for taking this long to make good on my promise, but I’ve been a tad preoccupied making a baby. At ten weeks along, you’ve also missed out on most of the first trimester stuff, which trust me, wasn’t all that spectacular. Headaches, fatigue, and my stomach rocking on the high seas don’t make for very good reading, now do they? And before you start asking, no we don’t know if it’s a girl or boy yet. No, we haven’t heard a heartbeat. And yes, Jon and I are both over the moon. Kind of a good feeling to know that before Christmas I might be adding the illustrious title of “Mommy” to my credentials on here.
They look like tentacles from Maniac Mansion. If you don’t know what that is, just go stick your head in the sand. Right now.
And now for the main event, that long-awaited day of reckoning in which you pack of weirdos challenged me to not only cook and eat squid, but to make it delicious enough for you to want to try it. Well guess what, food freaks? Not only did I do it, I freaking loved it. You might too, if you get up the guts to try this. Fortunately, I did the grunt work and posted pictures of how to go about making something that looks like an alien parasite into something food-porn worthy.
As you can see, I lucked out finding my squid. Central Market in Forth Worth, TX had the squid tubes, which are the peeled and mostly cleaned parts of the main body. No tentacles, thank the Lord. It’s gonna take a lot more than a wing and a prayer for me to make squid tentacles sexy and delicious. So I was more than happy with my little pound of slimy, smelly tubes.
My newest finger puppet. I think I’ll call him Squidard.
So this is what I started with. But, just in case you wind up getting the whole enchilada, here’s a link to some instructions on how to clean and prep a whole squid: http://homecooking.about.com/od/seafood/ss/cleansquidsbs.htm
Yes, I know it’s a tad gross either way, but strap on a pair already and do it. How do you think our ancestors survived, by traipsing off to the local market? Nope, they did nasty stuff like this. Okay, maybe they didn’t turn their food into a weird little finger puppet like I did, but what you’re seeing is gallows humor. A desperate attempt at levity in front of a slippery, strange challenge. You may be wondering, could I have cheated? Answer is no. While I did get on-site coaching from my chef friend, the lovely Amber, I was insistent on doing the work myself. I swear to Julia Child and anything else holy, she didn’t so much as touch a knife or pan.
Slicing open one side of the tube. Easy Peasy!
In case you’re wondering why I didn’t jump for the classic Italian snack of fried calamari, let me remind you of the ever-growing little kumquat in my womb. Fried stuff hasn’t sounded good to me for weeks, let alone cooking it myself. Besides, I like to make it a real challenge. And what better way to do that than with calamari fra diavolo? Spicy, no? Seriously, if you’re going to name a dish after the Devil, it had better be. So I laid the tube down flat on the board, inserted the knife, edge facing out, and carefully worked at it from from the inside. You don’t want to do both sides, just one so you can splay it out open and flat. Don’t stress if it looks a little wonky, the tubes are slippery and a tad on the squishy side anyway.
Insane in the membrane!!
Don’t flip out if you find there’s a little piece of skin or membrane still on the thing. Just peel it right off and try not to think of it as a giant booger. Those of you with kids have had to deal with much grosser things, I’m sure. Could be worse- You could’ve gotten a whole squid and had the thing stare at you the whole time. Now aren’t you glad we have these nice, clean tubes? By the way, make sure you get rid of any little pieces of bone still left up in the very end of the tube. It’s like very thin plastic, so feel it out with your fingers and make sure you get it. Once you’ve got all your tubes sliced open and cleaned out, it’s time to cross-hatch.
Kind of hard to believe that this would turn out delicious. But keep reading.
Next thing is to start making shallow, diagonal cuts along one direction, then come back and do it the other way.
So first like this: /////
Then like this: \\\\\
Why, do you ask? Because otherwise you’ll be trying to chew calamari the rest of your life, and this tenderizes it nicely by creating more surface area. Think about when you pound a cutlet with a mallet to tenderize it- Same idea. Make sure you DON’T cut all the way through the squid, and because it’s kind of thin it’s easy to do. Just take your time, and it’ll work.
While we’re at it, I must warn you that even when it’s very fresh, prepping this dish comes with a certain amount of odor. If you don’t like your hands smelling like a fish market after, go for a soap with lemon in it, or better yet slather some fresh lemon juice on your hands to kill the stink. Nobody ever said anything good came without a price, so just deal with it. Also, once you’ve tossed all the wrappings and bits of squid membrane, take your trash out RIGHT AWAY. Don’t do what I did and leave it overnight to become gag-worthy by morning.
Sauteed garlic in olive oil, with chopped grape tomatoes.
Things are looking up by the time the garlic starts doing the mambo in hot olive oil. There’s nothing like the smell of sauteing garlic to make you feel like you’re in Grandma’s kitchen and she’s there waltzing to Dean Martin in a flowery apron. And it only gets better when the grape tomatoes cut in. You can use diced up roma or san marzano tomatoes as well, but I had a bunch of the little guys in my fridge waiting to get used up. And that’s another trademark of the Italian chef- making do with what you have.
While that’s all going, it’s a good time to zest some lemon rind, if you haven’t already. I’m nuts about trying to get my stuff all ready beforehand, what my chef coach Amber calls the “mise en place”. And it’s really the smartest idea ever, having everything chopped, sliced, measured, all waiting patiently like in a cooking show. It sure beats running around shrieking like a chicken because the butter’s burning while I try to chop the onions without slicing a finger off.
Now is also a great time to get that pasta water going. For something like this I go for flat pastas, like linguine or fettuccine. Grab however much you need for one or two people, or four if you’ve got company or are insane enough to try and get your kids to eat squid. Much as I love this kind of adventurous cooking and eating, I’m also a realist. Unless there’s some kind of incentive or the kid is fascinated with the bizarre, this probably isn’t the most kid-friendly dish. Besides, with all the spice on this thing, the kids would be farting like mini Howitzers.
Starting to look a little naughty! In a good way, of course.
**Save a third of a cup of pasta water!!!** The secret to a really good pasta dish? Right there. Any time you drain off pasta and throw it into the pan with the sauce and toss it all up, this is the KEY to keeping it from drying out too much. Before all that, however, you’ll need to add your tomato paste, toasted pine nuts, lemon zest, white wine, parsley, and pepper flakes. Let all that party together for about a minute before letting the calamari make its grand entrance.
What you see in the picture here is totally normal, and totally awesome. As it cooks, the squid rolls itself up, scooping up some of the sauce as it does so, like a deliciously clever Italian squid burrito. Pay close attention here, because it only takes a minute or two to cook fully. When it’s white and opaque and firms up a bit, take it off heat immediately. Ironically, squid only likes to be cooked for a very short or very long time, otherwise you get the shoe leather everyone’s told you about. Safe to say, none of them ever tried this recipe.
Taste the sauce, add a bit of lemon juice to your taste, or more red pepper flakes if you like it hotter. Remember that golden rule of cooking, that you can always add a bit more, but add too much and you’re screwed.
Like the end of a feel-good childhood movie- Makes you just want to hug someone.
Once you’ve added the fettuccine, put the pasta water in with it and use a spatula or tongs to toss everything together. Get it nice and coated until it looks cozy as puppies in a blanket. I’m a big believer that if a dish looks good, more often than not it tastes good too. And with all the variety of colors and shapes and textures, this one’s a beauty.
By this point in the experiment, all my fear was long gone. My mouth was watering, my stomach quivering, all to get a taste of what I’d been anticipating for so long but hadn’t had the guts to go through with. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Amber and I dished it up and served it with just a couple of rolls to sop up sauce, and we fell to like two inmates who’d been living on mystery meat and slaw.
I wish I could describe this dish in a way that does it justice- Spicy, tomatoey, with a fresh bite of lemon and zest and the delightful crunch of the pine nuts. But most surprising of all, the squid was actually good. A bit chewy sometimes, but not at all fishy-tasting like I thought it would be. And this was by far the perfect way to do it, something that would have made my Grandma proud.
Mario Batali, eat your heart out!
My lovely and talented cooking coach and a marvelous chef in her own right-Amber!
So everything worked out better than my highest expectations. And although I don’t think squid will be a permanent fixture on the menu, that’s one more mountain conquered. One more food challenge met and won, and that’s enough to keep me satisfied awhile. All that’s left to make this a true success is for you, the illustrious reader, to man up and try it yourself. Go ahead, don’t be shy! Believe me, if this small-town housewife could make it work, there’s nothing stopping you.
I’ll be posting another food challenge soon, preferably in the second trimester when my stomach stops rocking on the high seas. In the meantime, run out and try this recipe, write in, ask questions. Consider this my official turning of the tables back on you- CHALLENGE EXTENDED!!
Calamari Fra Diavolo (Serves 2-4)
1/2 lb squid tubes (cleaned, opened, cross-hatched)
2TB tomato paste
2TB EVOO (more if needed)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 cup or more grape tomatoes, quartered
handful of toasted pine nuts
2 TB fresh chopped parsley
1/2 tsp lemon zest
lemon juice to taste
red pepper flakes to taste
1/3 cup pasta water
bunch of linguine or fettuccine (according to how many served)
1 cup of white wine (more if needed)
salt to taste
1) Saute the garlic in olive oil, toast the pine nuts by putting them in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until they start to turn golden brown. Add the grape tomatoes to the garlic, and let it cook for about a minute. Get the pasta water to a low boil.
2) Throw in the pasta and check it periodically until it’s done. Meanwhile, add the white wine, pepper flakes, tomato paste, lemon zest, lemon juice, and pine nuts to the sauce and cook for another minute or two until the flavors release into each other (You’ll be able to smell it).
3) Drain off the pasta except for the 1/3 cup. Add the calamari to the tomato sauce, as well as half the chopped parsley. Taste the sauce and adjust spices or salt if needed. Take the calamari and sauce off heat when the calamari turns completely white and opaque, about a minute or less.
4) Add the pasta to the skillet with the water and toss everything together with tongs or a pasta scoop until it’s well-coated and combined. Serve immediately.