DISCLAIMER: If you are at all weak of stomach, and/or are just sitting down with a nice scone and latte at 7 in the morning, you may want to bookmark this for later. I’ll be talking about squid guts.
I enjoy an order of calamari at Earls as much as the next guy. (Perhaps a little less… you’ll never have to fight me for it.) But it is the sort of thing it would never even occur to me to make from scratch. Which is why I enjoy, at times, being pushed off the edge of my comfort zone. This usually happens when chefs or other food writers come to town and I take care of their foodstyling for TV appearances and such.
I spent today with my pal Ron – you may know him as Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuk, self-proclaimed barbecue evangelist and winner of I don’t know how many barbecue competitions, and all-round awesome guy. He taught me how to plank brie (I’ll show you soon, I promise! Maybe this weekend?) and how to throw chunks of wine barrel straight onto your barbecue (just lift up the grate and toss ‘em in) to easily smoke a prime rib of beef, and how you can do a whole roast on the grill by placing it on the left side but then lighting the right, so that it’s indirect heat and doesn’t burn. (I wish I had remembered my camera this morning at Breakfast TV. Wow oh WOW was that piece of meat a thing of beauty. We all just stood around and sobbed with joy at it out on the street among the commuters at 8 am.) He even has a meat thermometer that comes with a little beeper that clips on his belt and lets him know when his meat is at the exact temperature he wants it. Far cooler than an iPod, no? I like to hang out with people who have smokers and remote control meat thermometers.
On today’s agenda was calamari – on the grill. How the hell do you do calamari on the grill without all the little bits falling between the grate? I had no idea how it was going to work out, and had serious doubts. I grudgingly went to the store and bought a box of squid (easy to find in the frozen seafood section), which after leaking grey inky goo all over my (clean!) fridge, turned out to be whole. Great, an upgrade in my calamari/biology education. (Mike’s too, as we figured out how to pull the heads off, thus extracting the guts and a pretty cool looking clear cartilage, then cut off the tentacles right beneath the eyes, which were intriguingly detailed in a disturbing sort of way. Then we dissected and opened up the tube-like bodies, scraped off the purplish skin, and once the bodies were clean, scored them on the fleshier insides in a criss-cross pattern so that when they cooked, they’d sort of turn inside out and be tube-like. It sounds like an awful lot of work, but as Mike put it, it was boring, but not at all difficult.)
When it was all done, we ended up with a tidy pile of tentacles, another of tubes, and a third of guts, which we decided against feeding to Lou. (I’m not cleaning that up.) So far more squid than we needed for the show, which sent a pretty clear message to me that I should try my hand at Earls-style calamari while we were at it. What else do you do with calamari? (I know, there are a million things – salads, pastas – baby steps.) So I threw half into a container with olive oil, minced garlic and a hefty pinch of red chili flakes, and the rest I cut into rings for the battered kind. I had no dinner plans yet anyway.
As is the norm when I attempt something new, I browse around and see how other people are doing it. Some doused the calamari in buttermilk before the flour, and that seemed like a good idea. So I thought – why not let it sit in the buttermilk for awhile, rather than just dipping it, and add a minced clove of garlic to the mix as well, since buttermilk is such a great carrier of flavours? (Makes a great chicken marinade, tenderizing the meat as it adds whatever flavours you stir in.) So that sat in the fridge for the afternoon.
This afternoon included grilled calamari, which worked out just fine, didn’t fall through the grill at all (the secret is to get it really hot – not a problem with a gas barbecue) – Ron just threw them on, straight out of their oily marinade. They looked at first like they were trying to escape, but didn’t – they curled and charred and went from flaccid and grey to all spazzy-looking (the tentacles, anyway) and purple; the tubes crosshatched, grill-marked and white. It was very cool, very fast, and will definitely be fed to my vegetarian friend(s) who come for barbecues this summer.
But I didn’t think I’d like it. They looked like the very epitome of fish gum. The purple tentacles weren’t helping. I wouldn’t have even tried any had Ron not thrust a forkful at me. I fully expected to be chewing for awhile, but I wasn’t. It was fab – smoky and charred and garlicky with a kick from the chilies. And not even battered and deep-fried.
Seared Calamari with Fresh Tomato-Basil Salsa
If you don’t want to divvy the calamari onto individual serving plates, you could serve this family-style out of a larger bowl or platter the same way. Slightly adapted from Barbecue Secrets Deluxe, by Ronnie Shewchuk.
1 lb. cleaned squid, equal parts bodies and tentacles
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp. crushed dried red chili flakes
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1-2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. rice or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper
Sprinkle the squid with salt, then rinse it well with cool water. Slit the bodies open and score the underside in a crisscross pattern, not cutting all the way through the skin. Put all the pieces in a bowl, cover with olive oil, add the garlic and chili flakes, stir and refrigerate for about an hour.
Preheat your grill on high. While it’s heating, toss the cherry tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper in a small bowl; toss to combine. Divide among 4 plates.
When the grill is ready, gently place the calamari on the cooking grate, taking care not to let the pieces slip through the cracks. (You could get a grill-topper designed for cooking small pieces of food, but it’s not necessary.) Stand at the grill with a pair of tongs – don’t walk away! – and turn the squid as they cook. They will need no more than a minute per side. Once opaque and char-marked (don’t overcook – like shrimp, they could get tough), transfer the pieces to the plates, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. If you like, give each plate an additional drizzle of olive oil.
And then the battered stuff. It was easier than I thought, albeit messy, and Mike, a true calamari lover, loved it. I kind of did too – something I was reluctant to admit until I found myself picking at the bits in the bottom of the bowl, having finished the whole thing between the two of us in about 10 minutes. It’s light and crispy, and not at all doughy. Finish it with sea salt and if you like, a squeeze of lemon.
Buttermilk Battered Calamari
about 1 lb. squid, tubes and tentacles
1/2-1 cup buttermilk
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
pinch cayenne (optional)
canola oil, for frying
Put the calamari into a bowl with the buttermilk and garlic; set it in the fridge for as much time as you have – half an hour or overnight.
When you’re ready to cook, put the flour into a plastic bag (the ones from the produce department work fine) and season generously with salt and pepper, and add a pinch of cayenne if you like. In a wide, shallow pan, heat about an inch of canola oil until it’s hot, but not smoking – test with a small piece of bread – if the oil bubbles vigorously around it, it’s ready to go.
Lift the calamari out of the buttermilk using your hand or a slotted spoon, letting the excess buttermilk drip off. Drop the pieces (all at once, or half at a time) into the bag of seasoned flour and shake it about to coat everything well. Drop pieces into the oil, separating them a bit as you do (you don’t want massive clumps) but don’t shake the flour off or anything. Cook, turning with a slotted spoon as you need to, until they are golden. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Season with salt and serve while they are still warm. Preferably with a dish of tzatziki.
Regular yogurt, preferably thick Greek yogurt, is far superior to the runny low fat or fat free varieties that are most commonly found at the grocery store. If you like, strain the yogurt through some cheesecloth for several hours to thicken it. (Save the nutritious drained-off liquid to use in pancake or muffin batter.)
1 small cucumber, peeled if necessary
1 – 2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups good quality plain yogurt, preferably Balkan-style
salt & pepper to taste
Grate the cucumber with a box grater onto a double thickness of paper towel. Gather up the cucumber in the towel and squeeze out as much excess water as you can.
Combine cucumber, garlic, yogurt, salt and pepper in a bowl and stir until well blended. If you like, add a squeeze or lemon. The garlic flavor will intensify the longer it sits. Makes 2 1/2 – 3 cups.
Per 1/3 cup: 45 calories, 1 g total fat (0.6 g saturated fat, 0.3 g monounsaturated fat, 0.1 g polyunsaturated fat), 3.5 g protein, 5.6 g carbohydrate, 3.7 mg cholesterol, 0.3 g fiber. 20% calories from fat
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