October 18, 2014

Blog the Twenty-fifth: Squid, squid, or squid?

Calamari” Three Ways:
Braised, Broiled, or Fried.

Why is it you can get a Gentile to eat squid if you call it “calamari”?  I live in a hard-drinking sailor town where peoples of northern European stock hold sway, and their frequent devotions to nectars of the grain are as likely to be accompanied these days by fried calamari rings as by fried onion rings.  It’s not as if the foreign name renders unrecognizable those tentacles winging the plate, and it’s a small step for imagination to reassemble the rings” into a squid torso. 

Plenty of people who will eat “calamari” won’t touch a fish cooked whole with its head on, as is done throughout the Mediterranean.  I used to think this childish, but lately I’ve been feeling moralistic about it, perhaps under the pressure of the bourgeoning vegetarian populations upsetting my culinary ecosystem.  That blank bovine stare they adopt at table as I chew my flesh and they their cud strikes me as judgmental.  I have a college buddy who worked in a slaughterhouse one summer, and he likes to say that he feels he has the right for life to put his hand to meat with a clear conscience, having wielded the stun gun with that same hand.  A fortiori the bar of moral vindication seems set pretty low if you’re expected to look your dinner in the eye when it’s already dead by someone else’s hand, and especially if there’s a jury of vegetarians watching for any wincing of conscience.

This is my first fish blog.  I ate a lot of fish growing up, and a lot of it before I liked it, on Fridays, and often also on Wednesdays.  When it comes to fish, you have to take “the food of my people” in the extended sense that extends to my father’s people back in Sicily, because as my father likes to say of my mother, “She’s from the mountains—what does she know about fish?”  We have friends of the family likewise from Sicilian shores, or else Naples, who “know” fish.  True, my mother’s father did use to take bus rides to Salerno and bring back fresh fish, but that was only an occasional treat, and the most beloved recipe of my mother’s people is baccalภsalted cod from Northern Europe (which they either fry, or else braise with potatoes, tomatoes, and olives (at Christmas), but salted fish doesn’t count, especially from Northern Europe.

My father claims that he taught my mother not only how to cook fish, but how to cook at all.  He says that when he found her, she and her sister were eating steak and drinking milk for dinner, and she does not deny this (she shared a sofa-bed with this same sister, in an apartment with their father, as a first detachment of the family’s immigration).  For his part my father, who came to America alone (“jumping the boat” he was working on), brags that as a bachelor he used to cook himself a big pot of beans on the weekend and eat pasta e faggioli all week.

Problem is, I never saw my father lift a pan or pot in Brooklyn to cook with, and he only ever took cooking utensils in hand to taste/critique what my mother cooked.  True, when he had time for it, he might man the grill in summer, or dress the great seafood salad for the big Christmas Eve dinner, but he did no cooking properly so called, at least back in the day.  Could he perhaps be credited with “teaching” my mother by way of final causality?  By way, that is, of saying very particularly what he wanted?  If truth be told, though my mother is an excellent cook, she is not an ambitious one, and she’d rather be moved by someone else’s desire than have to come up with one of her own.  Likewise she’s more likely to be prodded to innovation than herself to innovate, and my father could certainly be counted on to supply her with both desires and prods (not to mention directives and critiques).  But I don’t think final causes are supposed to do that—they’re supposed to move by being desirable, and I really couldn’t describe his behavior as desirable.

In any case, there’s no denying that my mother learned to cook fish often and well mostly because my father is fish people.  The one time my father’s people came to visit America, they refused to touch a tableful of fish prepared especially for them by my aunt, because they think it disgusting to buy fish dead.  Back in Riposto, they go to the docks and buy it still squirming.  My mother likes to tell the story that on one of her visits to Sicily, one of my aunts decided to make them octopus, an expensive delicacy these days in Sicily, and when she went to seize the poor creature (“povero animaluccio,” says my mother), to thrust it into the boiling water, it got away from her and started flopping around on the kitchen floor; she had to scream for her husband to come catch it.  Could  conscience get any better cleared than by your not only being able to look your dinner in the eye, but keep a grip on it squiggling as you thrust it into the cooking pan? 

Okay, so maybe you don’t need to buy your fish live, but you do need to buy it fresh, which means you should be ready to buy and cook whatever is freshest that day.  I know that as a child of modern natural science you expect nature to provide on demand whatever you want whenever you want it.  Your shopping list is an expression of this presumed and presumptuous command over nature.  The early modern pioneers of the experimental method promised us technological mastery over nature by means of it, and they criticized ancient physics for staying tied to Nature’s nurse strings, sitting docilely at her feet awaiting her lessons, rather than putting questions of their own devising to her and compelling her to reply in their terms.  

Well, I’m here to tell you that you might get men to the moon that way, and even fat that’s not fattening [though it give you the runs], but that attitude won’t get you delicious dinner.  Nature’s gifts are not filial titles to be prodigally extorted at will, but graces to be begged and vouchsafeed in due season.  Let the imperious beware lest, like the mother who pretends to weep when her infant impiously strikes the breast that feeds it, hoping to cure his anger by rousing his pity, but that failing, instead chokes his angry cries with a smothering kiss and lays him down in his crib, to exhaust himself with vain protests from his infantile prison; Nature may likewise indulge your consumptive greed and let you extort from her piles of fool’s gold—summer fruits in winter, and winter fruits in summer, color without savor, size without substance, glow without health, or health without happiness—smothering your own desires in hopes that you too come around to preferring her desires for you.

So put away that impudent shopping list of yours, Ungentle Reader, wake your sensorium, and look around you for the grace of the day.  If you had in mind to impress your friends with tuna steaks, but the tuna looks piqued and the squid plump, then change your mind and buy the squid.  But how will I cook it?  Ask the squid.  It will tell you, if your ears but have eyes to see.  If it’s big and beefy (as it were), it wants you to braise it with tomatoes; if medium sized and plump, it wants to be fried; if small and tender, it wants to be breaded and broiled.  It’s not about what you want, it’s about what it wants; or better, about you wanting what it wants.  That’s how you get delicious food—its nature speaks, and you heed; you listen, and it tells you what you want.

Needless to say, if the squid is big but not beefy, medium but not springy, small but languid, I look for something else.  Back in Brooklyn, my parents would not consider buying anything but whole fresh squid (i.e., never frozen).  They eschewed pre-cleaned squid as ever under suspicion of being yesterday’s leftovers, or worse, done by machine rather than by hand, and thereby vitiated.  Of course, they had a fish market every several blocks (some Italian, some Chinese), each offering them a hill of squid to pick through.  But it would no doubt be pushing the conversion of the Gentiles too far to ask them thus to confront their “calamari” glossy-eyed and sloshing about.  Also, cleaning squid is not fun.  You have not only to debone and dismember it with bare hands, as one animal does another, but to turn the severed members inside out so to uncover sundry viscera to be wrenched off.  I could describe the process, but you can probably figure it out, if you just keep in mind that you have to end up with a single clean tube of a torso and a set of headless tentacles. 

More likely, you’ll find squid for sale in your nearby Gentile market already cleaned for you (and you’ll pay for that).  The fish town I live in has one lone Seafood Market, which cleans squid brought in fresh from local fishermen, so I have the luxury of picking through a little pile of gleaming white torsos neatly divided from a little pile of pink tentacles, and sometimes even have my choice between beefy or petite (though rarely as beefy as I would like).  Once I get the squid home, I use scissors to cut the torsoes up into rings, and I put the rings and tentacles together into a brine—water salty as the sea (¼ cup kosher salt to 1 qt. water)—to soak in the frig until I’m ready to cook it.   When I’m ready, I drain the brine and add rinse water to cover, in which water I vigorously squish the squid around, which squishing produces a white froth; I again drain, rinse, and squish, until it stops frothing.  Then I spin the squid dry in a salad spinner.  My mother doesn’t soak her fish in a brine; instead, to tenderize it, she beats the squid in a bowl with salt, using a wooden spoon, which produces much froth that she rinses away; then she dries it off with and lays it out on towels.  Now it’s ready to cook.

Calamari Tomato Braise

If the squid is big and beefy, I braise it with tomatoes.  I dump the squid into a pot, sprinkle evenly all over with salt, and drizzle lightly all over with regular olive oil.  I cover the pot and heat it up over medium-low heat.   As the squid heats up, it sheds pinkish squid juice, and when that juice comes to a simmer, I drain it into a bowl and save it to add back into the pot later.

I have meanwhile been slicing garlic halves thinly, several cloves’ worth, and now I drizzle extra virgin olive oil generously all over the squid, and strew garlic slices all over it, and turn up the heat to medium or so.  I toss everything around as the squid dries off and begins to sizzle in the oil along with the garlic, which I want to golden and so sweeten, but not brown!, to flavor and perfume the squid.  Once the squid plumps, and gleams, and pleases, then I toss in some white wine—maybe a ¼ cup (is that what half my little Ikea juice glass is?)—and allow that to sizzle off, without tossing the squid around in it until the wine has worked itself up into a lively simmer. 

I have meanwhile been seeding and chopping pelati, whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy—never not imported, never not whole—by slicing the tomatoes crosswise in half in a dish, and squeezing each half so that its rivulets of tomato juice carry along its seeds with it into the plate.  I’m piling up the seeded halves on a cutting board, and when the pile is complete, I very roughly chop it up.  I don’t want too much tomato—maybe a quart can for a couple pounds of squid—because I want to end up with sauced squid rather than squid in sauce.  I don’t want the squid’s flavor and texture to get drowned in a sea of tomato sauce—the tomatoes are there for the squid, not the squid for the tomatoes.  In the end, I want a glistening pile of orangey-red calamari on a flat dinner plate, exuding a pulpy pool of tomatoey squid sauce to be sopped up with bread.  By the way, littering tomato sauce with squid is as vitiating an act as drowning squid in tomato sauce—there’s loss of integrity either way, blending that blunts what it blends.  My people never serve calamari on pasta (my sister doesn’t count).  Calamari al pomodoro is always the main dish, served with vegetable sides, and crusty bread, not usually preceded by a first dish, but often followed by cheese. 

Okay, back to the squid in the pot:  when it has happily finished its vinous steaming, in go the chopped tomatoes with a fistful of chopped fresh parsley and sprinklings of salt, and everything gets tossed together for mutual infusing of flavors, aromas, colors.    

When it looks all pretty—glistening, rosy, speckled green—I add the reserved squid juice and also strain in the tomato juice from the plate (straining out the seeds), and once these cooking juices have
heated up to a lively simmer, then I turn the heat down to medium low, put the lid on ajar, and let all hum away for a half-hour, checking and tossing now and again.  

Once the sauce thickens, glistens, and beckons, I taste the squid both for tastiness and tenderness.  If it needs salt, I add salt; if it needs oil, I add oil; if it’s not tender, I cook it some more, No?

Calamari Fried

These days, I’m less inclined to make fried calamari at home, there being good fried calamari aplenty out in the world.  To do it right, you need to deep-fry it, and good restaurants are good at deep-frying, frying as they do day in and day out, as long as they’re good about keeping their oil clean.  But I have a good deep-fryer at home, a DeLonghi, with an accurate temperature control setting and a lid to control odors, so I do deep-fry calamari when, Well, the best looking thing at the fish market that day was medium sized squid, Right?

By the way, Gentiles seem as irrationally afraid of fish smell as of fish heads.  Perhaps some of this is just squeamishness to be ridiculed, and some is PTSD.  Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy, only old fish does, and there’s a lot of old fish for sale in the world, with an acrid smell like B.O., and like B.O., the smell is memorably offensive.  The smell of it is unmistakable to an experienced nose, and when I brought my mother to my local gourmet market, with its showy display of pricey fishes, she said, “Something smells bad.  I wouldn’t buy fish here.”  Meanwhile, the plebian offering at my local supermarket never gives off an off odor. 

Fresh fish smells not unpleasantly of the sea—think beach.  Still, back home I stick the wrappings even of fresh fish in a plastic bag, which I knot closed and throw into the kitchen trash, which I remember to put out that night.  I open a window or run the exhaust fan while cooking, and rinse off cooking pans and utensils sooner rather than later.  It’s all common sense, to one who cooks fish a lot.  But cooking it makes the whole house smell of fish.  So what?  What food doesn’t do that?  The smell of whatever you cook next will supplant the fish smell. Whatever you cook, if you’re cooking it right, your whole house should smell of it, and you should like that.  If your food doesn’t smell good, it’s not going to taste good either, and if your house doesn’t smell of good food, you should worry about that.

Fried calamari is a classic Christmas Eve food for my people, along with other fried fish on the fritto misto platter, such as shrimp, baccalà, whiting, or sardines.  This platter of fried fish takes its place of honor next to the great seafood salad of boiled octopus, squid, shrimp, and conch, tossed with celery, scallions, and olives, scented with garlic and parsley, and dressed with lemon juice, vinegar, and olive oil.  These two main dishes are often accompanied by other specialty offerings, like baked clams, broiled lobster tails, or crab cakes, and usually preceded by pasta with clam sauce or mussels.  This fish feast harkens back, ironically enough, to a once obligatory fast from meat on Christmas Eve. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Christmas Eve dinner is a plenary session of the family, and with all my cousins’ kids now old enough to be bringing girlfriends and boyfriends along, you can imagine the logistics of serving such a dinner.  It’s a little out of control, frankly—as the rabbis say, Man plans, and God laughs—but somehow we get dinner out and no one gets hurt, thanks to God, no doubt.  In any case, however this fast burgeoned into a feast, it did so without prejudice to the big Christmas Day dinner the next day which, though we break down into smaller family units, is none the less exuberant.  I guess the excess is warranted, if you consider what a big deal it is that God should become man.  Perhaps it’s only fitting that such divine excess be greeted with human excess, that the outpouring of the Creator for the creature redound in overflowings of the creatures for one another. 

Okay, time to fry.  When deep frying squid, you want it to be as dry as possible, so after spinning it dry in a salad spinner, I also lay it out on a tray or towels to air dry some more.  I also want to dredge it in flour and shake off excess flour before laying it down in the frying basket.  Flour it in batches, and each batch only when it’s ready to go into the oil, and not in advance, lest the flour moisten and cake. Coarse semolina flour is best, for a thicker and tastier crust, and peanut oil best, for its high smoking point.  I love my mother’s way of using a paper towel to dredge:  I pour out a mound of flour into the middle of a paper towel, salt my hill very generously, place a batch of squid on the top of the hill, and then use the corners of the paper towel to roll the squid around in the flour, until all is evenly coated.  Before I converted to the paper towel method, I used to put the seasoned flour in a plastic bag, add in squid, and toss it around in the bag. 

I shake the squid pieces free of excess flour before placing them in the deep-fryer basket.  When you put a batch of floured squid into the frying basket, do not crowd them in that basket!  The pieces of squid need to be able to dance freely around one another in the sizzling oil.  You must take care not to overcook them, or they’ll be tough.  As soon as they blush golden, at the very first sight of any gilding at the edges, pull up that basket and taste for doneness.  If they’re cooked, they’ll be springy and tender; if undercooked, mushy; if overcooked, chewy.  We’re probably talking three minutes, and surely less than five minutes.  Use a slotted spoon to fish out the calamari from your pot of oil.

If you’re using a deep fryer, it should have a fish setting.  If not, then do it the ancestral way:  choose a deep saucepan, pour several inches of oil into it, and heat it through on medium/medium-high heat.  When the oil heats to shimmering and releases its scent into the air, drop in one piece of floured squid.  If it sizzles happily, the oil is right; if the squid simmers languidly, raise the heat; if the squid boils angrily, lower the heat.  (For that matter, if your deep fryer setting is not producing the desired result, then lower or raise the temperature accordingly.)  Keep adjusting the heat, if needed, as you go.  You want the squid to cook through and color in tandem:  if it colors before it’s cooked, lower the heat; if it cooks before it colors, raise the heat, No?  

Deposit the fried calamari, rosy and crusty [how about we  call it squid when it’s raw and calamari once it’s cooked?] onto a serving platter, perhaps lined with paper towel to absorb excess oil, and sprinkle evenly all over with salt, until delicious.  Then on to the next uncrowded batch, and so on.  They taste so good hot ‘n crusty out of the oil that it seems a shame to fend off snatchers (even if you could) until you have fried them all and can present the platter whole to the whole company.  In any case, as the cook you should certainly snatch a few, and truth be told, maybe they’d best be served as a fancy antipasto, so that the platter of snatchy calamari can be passed, razed, and refilled in rounds.

Calamari Breaded and Broiled

In the early days, when my parents picked through their hills of whole squid in Brooklyn, they’d cast off the small ones as unworthy of their cooking.  Such contumely was perhaps its own just punishment, but they were saved from it by my mother’s best friend’s sister’s Barese neighbors.  Turns out that in Bari they’ve learned to broil tender little squid after rolling them in olive oil and then in seasoned bread crumbs.  Of course, as you know, in my family that means 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs, although in this recipe I’m sometimes tempted to cut these with some plain bread crumbs, for more delicate seasoning.  (If you want to season your own at home, I’d suggest trying 3 parts plain bread crumbs to 1 part grated Pecorino Romano, finely chopped parsley, salt and pepper, and perhaps a mild dried herb friendly to fish, such as thyme or marjoram.)

Breading and broiling is as quick and easy a way to cook squid as there is, and small tender squid are much easier to find than big beefy ones, so this is a very useful recipe in the lands of the Gentiles.  As for deep-frying, squid must likewise be very dry for broiling, so I not only spin it dry but also air-dry it some more, laid out on towels or a tray.  However, unlike for deep-frying, the squid can be breaded well in advance, and even profits from the breading's having time to dry off. 

My mother lays out the breaded squid on a rack, so that they won’t sit in the liquid they inevitably shed during cooking, and also so that they cook underneath without needing to be turned over, which would surely spoil the breading.  She puts them not too close to the broiler—at least 6 inches away, mid-oven, rather than the usual 2-3 inches—lest they color before they cook.  As usual, we’re looking for a rosy gold with gilded edges. 

I have another way of cooking fish that I don’t want to turn over.  Instead of broiling from above, I pre-heat the oven to a high temperature, say 400 degrees.  I spray the pan with oil before laying the fish on it, place it on the bottom rack of the oven, and then raise the temperature even higher, say 450 degrees, so that the pan is heated from below and sears the underside of the fish during the cooking.  I might do this with broiled calamari as well, but the risk I run is that the pan would not heat fast enough to cook off the shed liquid before the squid cooks and crisps.  However, if the liquid does cook off fast enough, then the calamari will be even more crisped from below than on my mother’s rack, where though not sitting in shed liquid, they are yet being steamed by it.  

Now you’re ready to eat it!  And its head having previously been wrenched from its tentacles, you need have no moral scruples about not having the courage to look your calamari in the eye before eating it!  However, it will still count as pusillanimous for you to refer to its tentacles as the “curlicues”.


Calamari Tomato Braise

* Buy big beefy squid.  Cut the torsos into fat rings. Beat the torso rings and tentacles with salt into a froth; rinse well and drain well.
* Put the squid into a pot , drizzle lightly with regular olive oil, put it over medium-low heat , and cover.  When the pink squid water shed by the squid begins to simmer, drain it into a bowl and save for later.
* Drizzle the squid generously with extra virgin olive oil and strew generously with sliced or chopped garlic. Raise the heat to medium and sauté the squid and garlic in the oil till rosy and aromatic.
* Add in a big splash or two of white wine and let it heat to a lively simmer before tossing the squid in it. Cook the wine off.
* When the squid sizzles anew, add in some chopped tomatoes, not to exceed in bulk the squid, along with chopped parsley and showers of salt.  Mix and heat through until glistening, rosy, and aromatic.
* Add in the reserved squid juice along with any tomato juice shed during chopping, turn down the heat to medium, put the cover on the pot ajar, and let cook for 20 minutes. Then check for tastiness and tenderness: add salt and oil as needed, and cook to tender-firm, adding a bit of water, if needed.


Calamari Deep Fried

* Buy medium springy squid. Cut the torsos into medium rings. Beat the torso rings and tentacles with salt into a froth; rinse well and drain. Spin-dry, and then lay out to air-dry some more.
* Pour out a mound of flour (preferably coarse semolina) onto a paper towel and mix in coarse salt. Grab some squid parts and plop them on the mound of flour. Use the edges of the towel to roll them around in the flour to cover. Then remove them piece by piece, shaking away excess flour.
* Place them loosely in a deep-fryer basket, with breathing room. Dip the basket into pre-heated oil. They should sizzle cheerfully (not simmer lazily, nor boil angrily). Adjust heat to keep them cheerful.
* As soon as they turn rosy gold and show the first signs of gilding at the edges, probably in 3 minutes and surely less than 5, lift the basket and taste for doneness. If done, pour them out onto a paper towel and salt for tastiness. 
* Snatch up while still hot and crispy.


Calamari Breaded and Broiled

* Buy small tender squid. Cut the torsos into a few rings. Beat the torso rings and tentacles with salt into a froth; rinse well and drain. Spin-dry, and then lay out to air-dry some more.
* Pour out some regular olive oil into a bowl, and some seasoned bread crumbs onto a paper towel. Grab some squid parts and roll them around in the oil to coat. Then pull them up, allowing excess oil to drip off. Plop them onto the mound of seasoned bread crumbs. Use the edges of the towel to roll them around in the crumbs to coat evenly. Lay them out on a rack in a pan for broiling; if you can do this in advance and give the the breading time to dry off, all the better.
* Turn the broiler on to preheat the oven a bit, then place the pan mid-oven, six or so inches from the heat. 
* When they look golden and gilded and yummy, taste for doneness. When done, remove them gingerly to a plate and salt for tastiness. Eat hot and crispy.