One of my sorriest kitchen experiences involved squid. I'd just discovered the joys of stuffing it, and some people I wanted to impress with my skills were coming to dinner. So I served some picture-perfect specimens, swollen with bread crumbs, chopped tentacles, garlic, parsley and egg.
The dinner was a disappointment (to be frank, neither of my new friends had more than two bites). They'd never eaten squid, and couldn't believe that anyone would find anything with that name, with tentacles, and with a perfectly smooth, shiny white surface -- "What was that stuff, plastic?" one still mutters occasionally -- not only edible, but delicious.
But a couple of years later, their daughter sampled a few pieces of fried calamari off my plate at a restaurant and, the next month, the mother actually enjoyed a bit of spicy squid salad. Both discovered squid's appeal, a sweet, mild flavor not unlike that of shrimp, and, when cooked correctly, a texture similar to that of lobster. That's the thing about squid: ultimately, it's irresistible.
The mollusk was even more appealing a couple of years ago when it was 2 pounds for a dollar to the home chef. Now the off-the-boat price, in New York at least, is close to that, and retailers are paying 85 or 90 cents per pound. Prices have risen, for the most part, because Americans are beginning to join the international ranks of squid lovers.
Squid is found off both American coasts and may be, according to James L. (Jim) Wallace, a marine resources specialist for the Sea Grant Cooperative Extension Service, the largest biomass of any species in the ocean. "American fishermen have always caught squid," says Wallace, "but never got a good price for it." They'd just freeze it on the spot and sell it to the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese or Japanese who were fishing the same waters.
For years most of those boats worked the California coast, near Monterey and San Francisco. "But the El Nin o rising Pacific water temperatures of a couple of years ago," says Wallace, "forced them the squid up north as far as the Puget Sound." A shortage of squid was avoided, however, by a great east-coast squid run. The mollusk came so close to shore in the summer of 1983 that people were jigging for it off bridges in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
That happens every few years, according to Wallace, especially with the loligo squid -- also called winter, longfin, or bone squid (it's the one with the little quill in its body) -- which comes near shore in late May to spawn and stays around until July or so. The rest of the year loligo is caught offshore, as is the other major type, illex, which is a bit smaller and is known as summer or shortfin squid.
Some aficionados say loligo tastes better; it certainly grows larger, up to 2 feet in many instances. The largest squid, which is caught off Mexico's Pacific coast and called, appropriately enough, grande calamari, has meat a half-inch thick. This is being put through tenderizers -- rollers with hundreds of tiny needles -- frozen and marketed as steaks, though none of these has yet reached my Connecticut markets.
Freezing is an excellent option for squid. "They're among the best fish to freeze," says Wallace, "because there's very little moisture in the meat. It's got a shelf life of over a year." Indeed, frozen squid is available in many local supermarkets; it's cheap, good and easy to use. To defrost, just immerse the block in cold water; it'll thaw in an hour or so.
Freezing is also a good idea because squid, like most fish, spoils fairly rapidly; many boats clean squid on the spot and freeze them in blocks. Others just freeze them whole and uncleaned. Though cleaning squid may be intimidating at first, it's really quite easy.
When fresh squid spoils it changes color, losing its milkiness as it starts to turn red or yellow. "But the best way to tell whether squid is fresh," says Wallace, "is to use your nose." Fresh squid, which can be kept for a few days anyway, has a mildly sweet smell or no smell at all.
Squid's shape readily lends itself to stuffing -- you probably couldn't design a better food for that purpose -- but the mollusk is also great cut into rings and fried, stir-fried or cooked in sauces or stews. It's nearly impossible to undercook squid -- 30 seconds for deep- or stir-frying will do the trick, making it a great food for quick meals.
But once that point is past, the shellfish's protein solidifies and it takes a good while -- at least a half-hour, but often as long as 2 hours -- for squid to become tender again. So keep that in mind when you cook squid: "30 seconds or 30 minutes" is Wallace's slogan. And don't serve it to your gastronomically timid friends. How to Clean a Squid
1. Cut off the tentacles just above the squid's eye and reserve. Remove the ink sack carefully and discard. Squeeze out the beak -- a little round ball that is the squid's mouth -- and discard.
2. Removing the skin is optional. Just use your fingers; it usually peels off quite easily.
3. If you will be stuffing the squid or cutting it in rings for frying, clean it like this: put your hand in the opening you just created and pull out the squid's innards, including the quill and the small amount of yellowish fat you're likely to find. This is accomplished quickly and easily once you get the hang of it.
If you'll be using the mollusk in a stew or sauce, slit the body open before cleaning and just scrape the insides out.
4. Rinse in cold water. STUFFED SQUID (4 to 8 servings)
8 large squid, at least 5 inches long
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped parsley plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon chopped garlic plus 2 cloves, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
Clean the squid without cutting through the body.
The stuffing may be prepared in a food processor or by finely chopping and mixing the tentacles, bread crumbs, cheese, 1/4 cup olive oil, parsley, teaspoon garlic, egg, salt and pepper. If the stuffing seems too dry, add a bit more olive oil; if too moist, more bread crumbs.
Stuff the squid loosely; it will shrink. Close with toothpicks, skewers or, for a perfect job, thread.
In a skillet large enough to accommodate the squid, lightly brown the 2 cloves garlic over medium-high heat in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Brown the squid quickly and add the wine. Cook for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes. Lower the heat and cover.
Cook until the squid is tender, usually about 30 minutes, but perhaps a bit longer. Serve, covered lightly with sauce and chopped parsley. SQUID WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE (4 servings)
3 tablespoons dried, fermented black beans
2 tablespoons sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 pound cleaned squid, cut into 1-inch squares
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 scallions, minced
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water (optional)
Soak beans in sherry and soy sauce while cutting up squid and other ingredients, or for about 15 minutes.
Heat oil in wok or heavy skillet and add garlic and ginger. Give a stir and add squid and scallions.
Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds or less. Add black bean mixture and cook for less than a minute. Add cornstarch, if desired, for thickening. Serve over rice. COLD CALAMARI SALAD (4 to 8 servings)
1 pound squid, cleaned and cut up
1 small red onion, sliced into rings
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice, more or less
Salt and pepper to taste
Lettuce for serving
Place squid in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak for a minute and drain. Combine with onion and celery.
Combine all other ingredients, taste for seasoning and pour over salad. Chill for at least 2 hours. Serve, if desired, on a bed of lettuce.