Beyond Fried Calamari

Calamari crowns i i

hide captionMany calamari dishes feature only the squid's sac, cut into rounds, but the tentacles (above) add flavor, texture and fun. Clean the squid yourself (using the tips at far right) or have the fishmonger do it for you.

Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Calamari crowns

Many calamari dishes feature only the squid's sac, cut into rounds, but the tentacles (above) add flavor, texture and fun. Clean the squid yourself (using the tips at far right) or have the fishmonger do it for you.

Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Fried calamari has to be one of the most popular restaurant dishes. Whether you're eating American, Asian, Italian or Latin American, you can bet that fried calamari (with some sort of dipping sauce) will be listed under appetizers.

Yet whenever I — or, more often, my kids — order it, what arrives at the table is a plate of what looks like a pile of tiny onion rings. Not a tentacle in sight. It's as if they've been effectively banned from the dinner table.

Indeed, it is my guess that many people who order calamari have no idea that what they're eating is squid. This is an ominous trend, in my opinion — an extension of what we've seen over the years as we've moved further and further away from unprocessed food: breaded chicken nuggets that bear no resemblance in looks or taste to the real bird; flash-frozen fish fillets and shelled shrimp with nary a head in sight to remind us of what they once were.

So what, you say? Why do we need to know that calamari is squid? Who cares about the tentacles? I posed that question to Ramon Martinez, the chef at Jose Andres' tapas restaurant Jaleo, in Crystal City, Va. Martinez does serve the tentacles at his restaurant, as well as shrimp with their heads still on. What's more, he encourages diners to suck on the shrimp heads, for that is where the flavor is.

Nick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari at a restaurant in Italy i i

hide captionNick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari — especially the tentacles — at a restaurant in Italy.

Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Nick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari at a restaurant in Italy

Nick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari — especially the tentacles — at a restaurant in Italy.

Domenica Marchetti for NPR

"We're talking about food," Martinez says. "It's life and it's health. It's important. We have to know what we're eating, the quality, where it comes from. A lot of food has a lot of history behind it. We must respect that. We don't want to lose that knowledge."

Consider this a plea and an appreciation for calamari, in all its tentacular (OK, I made up that word) glory. To me, the tentacles are the best part. When fried, they curl up like some wild undersea flower; braised, they become tender and impart a wonderful sweet, nutty sea flavor to sauce. They make whatever dish they are a part of infinitely more interesting, to adults and kids alike (check out the picture of my kids Nick and Adriana enjoying fried calamari in Italy).

In Italy, tiny, succulent baby calamari is a staple in the cuisine of the seaside towns that line the Adriatic coast, where my mother grew up. It is served not only fried, but also grilled, stuffed, in marinated seafood salads and in pasta and risotto dishes — which are sometimes tastily sauced with the creatures' briny, purple-black ink.

About The Author

Domenica Marchetti is the author of Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style and The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (both published by Chronicle Books). Her articles about contemporary Italian home cooking have appeared in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking and other publications. She is at work on a third cookbook, about pasta. Visit her Web site at domenicacooks.com.

I've been eating squid all my life, which I suppose is why I've never been squeamish about it. Every Christmas Eve, my mother prepares calamari braised in a rich tomato sauce (I've adapted the recipe, below, and turned it into a wonderful sauce for pasta).

When we were kids, my sister and I had our own name for calamari: creepy crawlers. We loved spearing the squiggly tentacles with our forks and munching on them.

To me, the only intimidating feature of calamari is cleaning it. This is a somewhat labor-intensive task that involves separating the tentacles from the sac, removing the creature's beak, guts and cartilage and peeling off its exterior mottled red-brown skin. For years, my mother executed this chore over the kitchen sink, and I'm ashamed to say I never offered to help. Now, however, thanks to the same convenient fish counter services that provide us with cleaned fish and headless shrimp, we can also purchase cleaned calamari — and yes, for that I am grateful. At $7.99 per pound at my local fish store, it is no longer dirt cheap, but it is relatively inexpensive compared with, say, jumbo shrimp, which sell for twice that price.

Consider, also, calamari's nutritional value. It is high in protein, low in fat and an excellent source of vitamin B12. As if that weren't enough, calamari also is listed as a "good alternative" choice in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which rates seafood according to its sustainability and "ocean friendly" qualities. Squid, the guide says, "grow quickly and reproduce at a young age, making them highly resilient to fishing pressure."

When it comes to cooking calamari, there is really only one rule: Do it fast, or do it slow. Anything in between will result in something approximating cooked rubber bands. For calamari salad, for example, a quick boil in water is all you need to prepare the squid before dressing it. For sauces and braises, let the calamari simmer gently in sauce at a leisurely pace. Either way, you are in for a creepy crawly treat.

Fusilli With Calamari

Slow-cooking calamari in tomatoes tenderizes the seafood, which in turn yields its rich flavor to the herb- and hot-pepper-spiked sauce. I happened to find a package of long, curly fusilli at a gourmet food shop, which paired perfectly with the sauce. But medium-sized shells, cavatappi (corkscrew-shaped pasta) or another twisted shape that captures sauce will work, too. In a pinch, you can always use spaghetti or linguine. This recipe is adapted from my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006).

Fusilli With Calamari i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Fusilli With Calamari
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 4 main-course servings

2 pounds cleaned calamari, both sacs and tentacles, washed and thoroughly dried with paper towels

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, passed through a garlic press

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for the pasta water

Generous pinch of red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) stewed tomatoes

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 pound dried pasta, such as fusilli, linguine or spaghetti

With a chef's knife or kitchen scissors, cut the calamari sacs into 1/2-inch-wide rings. Cut each crown of tentacles in half lengthwise to yield bite-sized pieces.

In a large saute pan with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute, stirring from time to time, for 7 to 8 minutes, or until softened and translucent but not browned. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic and the salt with a fork to form a paste and add the paste to the onion. Add the red pepper flakes and oregano and stir to incorporate everything thoroughly. Stir in the calamari and saute for a minute.

Raise the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Let the mixture bubble for a minute or 2, then pour in the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover partially and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover and continue to cook the sauce for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until it has thickened and the calamari is completely tender. Stir in the vinegar, raise the heat to high, and cook for about 2 more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Turn off the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Keep the sauce warm, reheating on low if necessary, while you cook the pasta.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and add a generous quantity of salt. When the water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook according to the manufacturers' instructions until al dente.

Drain the pasta in a colander placed in the sink, taking care to reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot and spoon about 3/4 of the sauce over it. Toss well with a pasta fork to fully incorporate the sauce into the pasta. Add a splash of cooking water if the sauce seems too thick.

Transfer the dressed pasta to a decorative serving bowl and spoon the rest of the sauce over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve immediately.

Calamari And Shrimp Salad With Bay Leaf

Insalata di calamari (calamari salad) is a staple in towns dotting the Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts of Italy. I add shrimp to the mix simply because I like the combination. This salad makes a lovely antipasto for a casual dinner party. It needs time for chilling. This recipe is adapted from my book Big Night In (Chronicle Books 2008).

Calamari And Shrimp Salad With Bay Leaf i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Calamari And Shrimp Salad With Bay Leaf
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 pounds cleaned calamari, both sacs and tentacles, sacs cut into 1/2-inch-wide rings and tentacle crowns cut in half lengthwise to yield bite-sized pieces (for dramatic effect, leave smaller crowns whole)

Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/2 cup)

3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

1 clove garlic, passed through a garlic press

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Generous pinch red pepper flakes

1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

2 small fresh bay leaves, or 2 dried

Bring a small quantity of water to a boil in a large pot fitted with a steaming basket and placed over high heat. Add the shrimp to the steaming basket and cover the pot. Steam for about 5 minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked through (they should be pink and opaque). Remove the pot from the heat and with a slotted spoon or tongs remove the shrimp from the steaming basket and place them in a large bowl.

Carefully remove the steaming basket from the pot and fill the pot with water. Return the pot to the stove and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the calamari and cook 5 to 7 minutes, or until they are opaque but still very tender (check by tasting a small ring).

Turn off the heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer the calamari to the bowl containing the shrimp.

In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice, parsley, garlic, vinegar, salt, mustard and red pepper flakes. Slowly whisk in the oil until the mixture is thoroughly combined (start with 1/3 cup and add more if necessary to balance the acidity of the lemon juice and vinegar).

Pour the dressing over the calamari and shrimp and add the sliced red onion. Toss well to combine everything. Tuck in the bay leaves and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours or until thoroughly chilled.

Serve the salad cold, spooned over large butter lettuce leaves, if you like, accompanied by slices of grilled country bread.

Braised Stuffed Calamari

These appealing packets of calamari, stuffed with a piquant mix of bread crumbs, capers and sharp cheese, are easier to make than you might think. You can prepare the stuffing and fill the calamari ahead of time. Refrigerate until you are ready to cook them.

Braised Stuffed Calamari i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Braised Stuffed Calamari
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

12 cleaned calamari, both sacs and tentacles

3 cups fresh bread crumbs, lightly toasted in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes

3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

4 cloves garlic, 2 minced and 2 left whole but flattened with the blade of a knife

1/2 cup finely chopped mixed giardiniera*

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano (optional)

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

A generous pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 cups fresh tomato sauce (or best quality commercial tomato sauce)

With a sharp chef's knife, chop the tentacle crowns of the calamari into small pieces and place them in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the bread crumbs, parsley, minced garlic, giardiniera, capers, cheeses (if using), salt, black pepper and cayenne (if using). Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and mix well to achieve a stuffing consistency that is light and moist, but not too wet and not too dry.

Use your fingers to stuff the calamari sacs, picking up a pinch of stuffing at a time and working it into the opening at the top of the sac. Stuff each sac carefully (they can tear easily) until it is almost but not quite full — the calamari will shrink as it cooks so don't overstuff. Secure the top of each stuffed sac with a toothpick and set aside on a platter.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, deep skillet or braising pan placed over a medium flame. Add the 2 whole garlic cloves and let them sizzle, stirring them around a bit, until they begin to brown. Press down on the garlic with a wooden or silicon spatula to extract their juices, then remove and discard the cloves.

Raise the heat to medium-high and arrange the calamari in the oil in a single layer (be careful of spattering oil). Cook for about 2 minutes, until lightly browned on the bottom, then turn and brown on the other side, about 2 minutes more. Pour in the wine and sprinkle the lemon juice over the calamari and let the liquid bubble away for a minute or so. Stir in the tomato sauce. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan.

Cook the calamari for 15 minutes, then turn, using tongs. Cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the calamari is tender (a toothpick inserted should puncture the sac and slide in and out easily). Add a splash of water or wine if the sauce seems too thick.

Transfer the calamari to a serving platter and spoon the sauce on top of them. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve immediately.

*Giardiniera is the Italian name for pickled vegetables, most often found as a mix of carrots, cauliflower, pearl onions and red peppers. You can find bottled giardiniera at many supermarkets as well as gourmet food shops and Italian delicatessens.

7 Steps To Clean Calamari

Cleaning calamari is not difficult, but doing it properly requires several steps. Be sure to remove all of the squid's insides, any tough cartilage and the mottled skin. These instructions are adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (Knopf 1992).

1. Put whole squid in bowl of cold water and let soak at least 30 minutes.

2. Holding squid sac in one hand, use other hand to firmly pull off the tentacles, which will come away with the squid's pulpy insides attached.

3. Cut tentacles straight across just above the eyes; discard everything from eyes down.

4. Squeeze off small, bony beak at base of tentacles.

5. If squid is large, pull off as much skin from its tentacles as you easily can. Wash tentacles in cold water. Pat dry with cloth or paper towels.

6. Grasp exposed end of the cellophane-thin, quill-like bone in the sac and pull it away.

7. Peel off all the partly mottled skin enveloping the sac. Hold sac open with your fingers and run cold water over it to rinse interior and exterior. Drain and pat dry.

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