Last year, on everybody’s favourite food porn show Masterchef Australia, we saw the pleasant George Calombaris dish up a luscious-looking Coconut ‘Calamari’ with Blackberry Sorbet, Blackberry Jelly and Blackberry Coulis. He scraped out the flesh of a young coconut, cut it carefully into rectangles, scored it in a diamond pattern, and folded it into rolls to be served atop stewed fruit with other accoutrements. A beautiful dish expectedly, this was a clever dessert take on fresh pristine calamari, that gorgeous piece of seafood that lights up many a seafood platter, and can be both, a casual snack served with cold beers in dimly-lit, bright with people and music beach shacks, or an elegant dish served in mellow light in an upscale restaurant, with a glass of Albariño poured by an attentive sommelier.
Squid in Italian-style tomato sauce with spaghetti makes for a superb dish.
The terms ‘squid’ and ‘calamari’ may sometimes be used interchangeably, but technically, they are as different as prawns and shrimp are from each other. Both cephalopods (along with octopuses and cuttlefish), squid and calamari have eight arms, two tentacles with suckers along the edge, and ink sacs as part of their defence mechanism. Calamari have side fins running on the entire length of the body, while squid show shorter fins on the sides. Calamari are also more tender than squid, and are usually more expensive.
Squid have three hearts and move through water tail first instead of the other way round. They swim by sucking water into the mantle, that is then released through the ‘siphon’. Some species of giant squid can grow up to 43 feet long, and have eyeballs the size of a basketball. There are more than 300 species of squid identified, although scientists estimate there may be another 200 that haven’t been studied yet. Most squid are omnivorous, some even turn cannibalistic. Squid are found in almost all major bodies across the world, in warm tropic waters as well as colder aquatic environments, some extremely so.
Bunch of Suckers
The outer skin on squid has reddish-brown spots.
Fresh squid is firm to the touch, and the skin has coloured spots. The meat is delicate and white, and is rich in niacin/vitamin B-3 and vitamin B-12. A 3-ounce serving of raw squid has only 1.2 grams of fat, with a brimming 13.2 grams of protein, all adding up to a feather-light 78 calories. Of course, crispy squid rings rack up the fat content considerably, but are the most popular, since they’re the easiest to cook, and even simpler to serve as snacks or appetizers.
Squid, like most other seafood, is quick to cook, and doesn’t need much by way of prep. There are several tutorialsavailable to help with cleaning and prepping, including harvesting squid inkfrom the ink sac, which can be used for making your own pasta, or for printing cards as part of a fun DIY project. You could always buy cleaned squid, cut into rings, or left whole, and just get on with the cooking bit; it doesn’t get any quicker or convenient than that.
Cooking squid is a bit of a swinging-from-extreme-to-extreme activity. Squid is almost all protein with very little fat; while this means it gets the nutritionist’s fervent nod of approval, it also needs a bit of care with cooking, not unlike most seafood. For crisp calamari, keep the frying time to within a minute or so. For delicately tasty morsels of coconut flesh-like meat, leave the squid to braise in a sauce for about 20-30 minutes covered. Some people suggest freezing squid overnight, or, even better, opting for frozen squid as the secret to soft bites. Also, soaking squid in milk adds to the tenderness. When frying squid, keep the oil temperature to the lower range recommended for frying; some chefs believethis keeps the squid inside moist, even as the crust crisps up
Score ‘Em, Stuff ‘Em
Scoring squid meat helps keep it in shape, and also contributes towards tenderizing it.
Squid in salads is also a favourite with people around the world. This involves quickly blanching the meat and then marinating it in a vinaigrette or even a citrusette, seeing how lemon and lime, along with garlic, pairs with squid so well. Simple ingredients like tomatoes, parsley and olives work great in a squid salad, with the flavours getting better the longer the salad sits. Stuffed squid is a hit in seafood platters too; stuffing ingredients including chopped squid tentacles, minced prawns, onion and garlic, herbs, bread crumbs etc. are popular. Alton Brown has a great stuffed squid recipe, wherein he suggests turning the squid tubes inside out prior to stuffing; since the outer side tends to curl outward, the stuffing stays put. Since the tubes also curl up when they’re cooked, scoring them in a criss-cross pattern helps to preserve shape. Scoring also helps tenderize the meat to some extent.
Bijal Patel and Shumu Gupta, cofounders Fishvish, are fans of stuffing squid too. Bijal has tried his hand at stuffing squid with prawn and crabmeat, and sautéing the prepared tubes in butter and garlic with extremely satisfying results. Shumu loves squid rings stir-fried with butter and garlic and batter-fried calamari, but his favourite is, similar to Bijal’s dish, crabmeat cooked with a bit of onion and garlic, and stuffed into squid. He then sautés the squid in butter and serves it with creamed spinach. A bed of spaghetti or tagliatelle Alfredo would also work very well.
Cooking the tentacles with the tubes may turn your dish purple, so either discard the tentacles or cook them separately, when using as part of the stuffing.
Kalamarakia Yemista is another stunner of a stuffed squid recipe. Sometimes made with parsley, rice, raisins and white wine, this Greek dish has other variantsthat call for ricotta and lemon. Stewing squid in tomatoes and white wine makes for an amazingly delicious dish. Take it to the next level by stuffing the tubes first.
Make the World Go Round
From Asia to the Americas, crunchy squid rings make for a bestselling appetizer on restaurant menus.
From sautéing rings in a Kerala-style masala to stir-frying them with a coconut and powdered rice spicy paste like they do in the south of Tamil Nadu, squid is popular in the coastal regions of the country, as well as the inland areas. Stuffed squid makes an appearance on quite some regional menus, be it in the form of this spicy Goan-style ambot tik sauce, or this Konkani recipe of crispy squidthat is stuffed with a fragrant masala first—talk about the best of both worlds. The Goans also make an excellent calamari fry with a recheado masala that is popularly had as a snack with local beer; add the beachside to the mix, and you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
Across the globe, crunchy squid rings are the bar bite equivalent of popcorn. Served with lemon and aioli or mayonnaise, or marinara sauce, or soy or sesame sauce, depending on what part of the world you’re eating them in, batter-fried squid (or calamari, as the dish is also known) is as common and universal as fried potatoes. Added to pasta, stews, even rice dishes like paella, squid is a favoured pick all along. Squid ink is an interesting culinary ingredient; in Spain, they stew squid in its own ink for a black stew, while in Italy, to amp up the noir some more, they serve a sauce made with squid ink, wine, tomato paste and squid.
George isn’t the only Masterchef judge with a squid affection; Gary Mehigan serves Squid with Chilli and Garlic and Crisp Lettuce, and a Calamari with Bean Puree and Chilli, while Matt Preston stuffs hot dog rolls with crumbed calamari and mayo for his version of a lobster roll.
Dine Fine with Wine
Squid is a standard component of seafood platters across the world.
Elegant, albeit effortlessly dished squid makes for sophisticated dining, and a glass of your cellar’s best makes for a quick yet fine meal. Pair a calamari fritti with a sparkling white or rosé. The rosé also friends up well with stir-fried, Asian style spicy squid, or stuffed squid in a tomato and white wine sauce. With light stews, a Sauvignon Blanc is a great option, while a fruity Chenin Blanc brings out the flavours of grilled squid well.
If you haven’t tried eating and cooking with squid beyond the crunchy rings variety, now’s a good time to practice your cooking chops. Whether you’re trying an easy to do squid dish with familiar ingredients that a friendly neighbour shared the recipe of, or a more elaborate, spectacularly plated main, you will want to hold on to that sucker with all of your two arms.
About the Author An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.