There are two ways to prepare squid (aka calamari) with succulent results: very quickly, as in searing, grilling, or flash-frying; or very long, as in braising, stewing, or slow-roasting. Anywhere in between will yield rubbery, rigid bands like undercooked cartilage. I went with the latter preparation for this late-winter, almost-springlike, one-seafood stew. It could be plopped on top of pasta, or sopped up with pieces of bread. Tentacles had never been more tender.
Because I’m a stickler for quick recipes, this wasn’t intuitive to me. But I recently had a braised squid dish at a tapas night out with friends, and the soft, buttery morsels practically melted in my mouth. There was something almost pasta-like about its texture, and not the al dente pasta that I tend to prefer, but more like yesterday’s reheated tangle of tagliatelle, or fresh ravioli, that had fully absorbed its tangy sauce. I had to try this out. What’s an hour of waiting when there was something new to taste?
Time besides, this dish is intentionally easy, using only a handful of ingredients — most of which pantry staples. I went with Southern Italian standards, using lots of garlic, some chopped capers for piquancy and a sprinkle of red chili flakes. Because it’s a seafood dish, you wouldn’t want to shower it with grated pecorino as a garnish; alright, if you must, I won’t blame you, but a twist of black pepper and drizzle of good olive oil goes a long way instead.
Cleaned squid is simple to prepare, and sometimes they come in such tiny pieces, I don’t see much need to chop them up. But to render equal, bite-size pieces, just run a knife along the lengths of their bodies, to cut rings. The delicate tentacles at the end can be kept intact; they’re the best parts, in my opinion. Squid also doesn’t smell like much, as long as they’re fresh. And since they’re so plentiful in so many shores, it’s easy to find them fresh, and inexpensive to boot. These Long Island-caught squid were just $4/lb from Blue Moon Fish’s stand at the Greenmarket — each seafood monger there usually has them all year ’round.
If you put up tomatoes last summer in jars, good for you as they’d be great to use in the sauce. I’ve recently used up my last jar — yes, I’m eager for spring and summer to arrive. Canned tomatoes are just as fine, if more robust than a fresh tomato-based sauce. This will cook for a good 45 minutes to an hour, not quite intensifying as much as a good Sunday sauce or ragu. I’ve added a bay leaf for depth along with the capers and spicy chili flakes. Fresh herbs to sprinkle on top of your finished dish are recommended, like parsley or oregano (my pick).
Like the sunny and brisk weather right now, I think this is a great intermediate dish between winter and spring. Not as heavy as meaty tomato stews or sauces, nor as light as fresh vegetable-based ones, nor as pungent as puttanesca or as reminiscent of the sea as something with clams, it features a different type of protein, that’s mild and delicate. Tender tentacles, that is.
Calamari and Tomato Stew with Capers and Chilies
(makes 2-3 servings)
1 lb cleaned, whole squid, cut to similar-sized rings along the bodies and keeping the tentacles intact
1 cup dry white wine
about 12 oz. canned tomatoes, gently crushed
1/2 large or 1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 carrot, finely chopped
3-4 minced garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon capers, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp red chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh parsley or other herbs, chopped, for garnish
Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan that comes with a lid. Add the onions, carrots and a pinch of salt and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes, or until well softened. Add the garlic, capers and chili flakes and cook another few seconds. Increase heat to medium-high and add the calamari. Cook, stirring, until no longer translucent, about 1 minute. Add a pinch of salt and the bay leaf. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes and bring just to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cover. Let simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, checking to add a splash of water or reducing heat if the liquid is cooking down too much.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and drizzle in the extra tablespoon of olive oil, and fresh herbs for garnish.
(for 2-3 servings)
1 lb cleaned squid: $4.00
1/2 onion: $0.25
1/2 carrot: $0.25
3 cloves garlic: $0.20
1 cup white wine (at $10/bottle): $1.50
12 oz. canned tomatoes: $2.00
1 tablespoon chopped herbs: $0.50
3-4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.40
salt, pepper, chili flakes, bay leaf: $0.25
Five brownie points: This is not the most well-rounded dish, but works great as a part of a larger, family-style spread. Served with vegetables as sides like salad or sauteed greens, it makes a satisfying and light protein entree, or a tasty appetizer to serve with bread. Squid provides protein, but like most shellfish it’s also high in cholesterol. Good thing then that, like most shellfish, it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help balance your bad fats at the same time.
Seven maple leaves: I’ve been trying to use up odds and ends like half-chopped onions and carrots from my crisper drawer, as these winter produce staples keep piling up. This is a great way to do them off into a slow-cooked sauce. Canned tomatoes are ubiquitous all year round, although they’re often imported from Italy (in the summer months, try using fresh tomatoes instead). Finally, depending on how it’s caught, squid is considered a “best choice” or “good alternative” seafood according to Seafood Watch, and they’re available locally all year long.