Calamari delle Marche
I was a little girl, no more than seven or eight, the first time I saw a squid. We were at the Field Museum of Natural History, and I remember my daddy directing my gaze upward, and there, directly above me, was the hideous, massive hood of a giant squid. I was appalled and fascinated. We walked the length of three rooms before we reached the end of its tentacles.
The first time I saw squid on a plate was in Italy. I was 15, and we'd stopped at Ristoranti Tiempo di Agrippa, across from Rome's Pantheon. We were asked if we'd like to try the special of the day, and our waiter wheeled over a cart with bacon-wrapped sparrows (with heads and feet still on them) and a tossed salad with clumps of squid tentacles. Well, I was a pretty adventurous eater, but the visuals were just a little too vivid for me, and I declined. It wasn't until a few years later, and another trip to Italy, that I finally tried squid, this time in Venice, and this time more appetizingly presented (no sparrows).
Actually, squids are pretty interesting, on and off the menu. Along with the octopus, the squid is a cephalopod, or "head footed" mollusk. Because they are so hard to raise in captivity, we don't really know a whole lot about the lives of squids. Here are a few of the things that are known: some squids can "hide" by becoming transparent; some squids are bioluminescent; squids have ink sacs, which give us the pigment known as sepia; and squids are a cherished food in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.
The smallest squids are less than ¾ of an inch long, while giant squid have been known to reach lengths of more than 65 feet. Some squids are swift swimmers, some just drift. They can be found in coastal waters and at all levels of oceanic water. Squids have ten arms, of which two have developed into long, slender tentacles with wide ends and four rows of suckers with toothed, horny rings (as anyone who has seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has witnessed). The eyes of a squid approach those of humans in complexity, and the giant squid has by far the largest eyes in the animal kingdom.
Possibly the most significant fact about squid is that there are vast numbers of them. Sperm whales eat up to 121 million tons of squid each year (and probably consumed more than 260 million tons annually before their numbers were reduced), the southern elephant seal eats another 15-20 million tons per year, and seals, penguins, albatross, and fish also eat squid. (As a point of comparison, the total world commercial harvest of fish, including squid, is about 70 million tons.) Good thing they're abundant, or that plate of fried calamari might become only a fond memory.
Because they are abundant, squid is, happily, a delicacy that is still a bargain. But they require a little work. The first step in any recipe using squid is cleaning—and once you know how to do that, all sorts of recipes will suddenly seem more accessible. Cleaning squid isn't all that hard, and it's actually kind of interesting.
If you're using fresh-caught squid, making sure it's dead is important—its parrot-like beak can cause an unpleasant bite. If there is any chance it's not dead (some places do sell them live), strike it a good, solid blow on the head (which lies between the tentacles and hood). Of course, if you've purchased frozen squid, this is not an issue. Just thaw it out.
Grasp the head section firmly at a point just below the eyes (that is, between the eyes and the hood, rather than between the eyes and the tentacles). You can then pull the tail and fin section (or "tube") free from the rest of the body. This will reveal, among other things, the grayish ink sac. Depending on whether or not your recipe calls for the ink, you can remove the ink sac (carefully) to a sieve, or discard it. Next, cut the tentacles free just above the eye section (that is, between the eyes and the tentacles), and discard the eyes and innards. Squeeze the top of the tentacles, and a small, roundish piece of cartilage will pop out. Discard it. Also check the hood for the bone, which looks something like a clear, plastic feather. This should be removed (it usually slides out pretty easily) and discarded. Finally, rub off as much of the red membrane covering the squid as possible.
At this point, you have a lovely little white tube with fins and a little cluster of white tentacles. Depending on the recipe you're preparing, and the size of the squid, you can cut it up as needed at this point. (The tentacles only need to be cut up if the squid is really large. However, the tube is usually cut into either rings or strips, unless it's going to be stuffed.) Then your squid is ready for cooking.
One helpful tip to keep in mind when cooking a squid is that timing differs with cooking method: sautéing, never more than three minutes; stewing or simmering, never less than twenty minutes.
The picturesque region of Italy known as the Marches gave birth to Rossini and Leopardi. This verdant, rolling, sea-bordered area produces the wine Verdicchio and is the location of the principal fishing port of Italy, San Benedetto del Tronto. Not too surprisingly, the region is well known for its seafood dishes, among them, a variety of squid dishes. The recipe below comes from this region.
Calamari delle Marche
3 pounds squid
½ cup olive oil
½ tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
¼ tsp. crushed hot red pepper
1 cup white wine
2/3 cup chicken, vegetable, or fish broth
Clean the squid and cut the hood into strips. Rinse the squid (hood strips and tentacle clusters) thoroughly in lightly salted water, then dry them well. Heat the oil and fry the garlic gently until golden brown. Discard the garlic (or sprinkle with salt and enjoy) and add the squid, parsley, salt, and hot red pepper. Cook over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. Add the white wine and let it reduce slightly (about 10 minutes). Then add the broth, lower the heat, cover, and simmer gently for about 15 minutes longer, or until the squid is tender.