This column originally ran December 29, 2005, in the column "Ravenous" in The Woodstock Times, The Saugerties Times and The Kingston Times, etc.
Among the most succulent of edibles is a family of critters who have three hearts and change color like chameleons. Older than God, they came along several million years before fish did. They are kin to the clam and the escargot and they dine on lobsters, shrimp and crabs, which flavor their delicate flesh.
The squid, the cuttlefish and the octopus are cephalopods, diaphanous shape-changers with large intelligent brains and well-developed senses. Squid and cuttlefish have small internal shells to help keep their shape, but the octopus has no bone or shell of any kind. To defend their vulnerable bodies they squirt ink to cloak themselves.
Although you’ll find them all over the world, they are not eaten everywhere, mostly just in the Mediterranean, Asia and Latin America. The book James Beard’s American Cookery (Little, Brown 1972) that I quote ad nauseum in this space has no mention of any of the cephalopods: no octopus, no cuttlefish, no squid, not even the calamari that is now common on menus all over this country, from Mexican to Italian to Greek to Japanese to contemporary American.
A few years ago in the seaside town of Giardini Naxos in Sicily I tried to order some fried squid for lunch. “You must not order it fried,” the portly waiter told me in Italian, his voice deep and raspy as Brando’s Godfather. “It is so fresh you must get it plain grilled.” I complied, and my calamaretti were tiny and sweet. I have had big meaty squid in Sicily too, grilled whole and overflowing the edges of the plate, tasting of wood smoke and lemon and the sea. At some relatives of my husband’s we had some that had been stuffed with savory crumbs, lined up on a skewer and grilled in an indoor fireplace. At a lunch spot on Lipari in the Aeolian Islands, our stuffed squid swam in a rich buttery sauce of onions and the raisin wine Malvasia.
My love affair with squid goes way back. Unlike most American kids of my era I got to try calamares alla romana (squid Roman style) in Barcelona in 1966. The fat, crispy, slightly chewy rings were like candy to me. When I finally got back to Barcelona in 1980 they were the first thing I sank my teeth into, the minute after I checked into my three buck a night pensión.
For years after that my opportunities to eat any cephalopods were few, until I finally started to see them offered as fried calamari on restaurant menus. I lived in Rhode Island then, where squid was invariably served heavily sprinkled with canned hot peppers, often with marinara sauce on the side for dipping. Although I like my fried squid with just salt and fresh lemon juice, most people like a dipping sauce like the fiery chipotle pepper sauce they give you at El Danzante on Broadway in Kingston [NY] or the devilish Fra Diavolo at Downtown Café in the Rondout.
The first time I tried to fry some myself, for a dinner party around ’88, I threw too many into the wok I was using and they were too soggy. Since then I’ve learned to not crowd the pan and can make a fine fried squid platter, in crispy beer batter or a simple flour coating, but now to cut down on the family’s fried food consumption I make it rarely. Usually I put the rings and tentacles into a long-simmered tomato sauce for linguine instead.
To be truly tender, squid has to be cooked either hot and fast or low and slow. If it’s fried too long or not simmered long enough it gets rubbery. When squid was considered a trash fish you used to be able to buy it for a buck or so a pound. You had to clean it yourself, but I enjoyed slipping off the purple skins and grabbing the head off to get the gooey guts and clear bones out. These days it usually comes pre-cleaned, although not pristinely; often some insides or beaks remain.
In parts of Asia, the tubes are cut along one side to make squares, which are scored in crosshatches so that as it cooks it curls into a little tube. If left whole, squid is fun to stuff with some combination of its own minced tentacles, breadcrumbs, spinach, ham, feta cheese, olives, pine nuts or rice, and then stewed in tomato sauce or grilled.
With my fondness for squid I dream of the Giant Squid Architeuthis that lives in North Atlantic waters. It weighs half a ton, is about sixty feet long and has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, each one a foot across.
I was happy to see a squid character on TV, the nerdy Squidward on the cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants. But according to cartoon creator Steven Hillenburg, the cranky curmudgeon is actually an octopus.
Octopus is a hard sell, compared to squid. People fear it, won’t go near it. Grocery store cashiers shudder and squirm when it rolls by them on the conveyor belt, asking me if it will come alive when I thaw it out later. The terror seems instinctive: my little daughter shrank back scared when I lifted one out of the sink as I was getting ready for Christmas, its long curly slimy arms dangling low and full of tiny suckers. But octopus is great stuff, underrated and misunderstood. [translated as “polyp” on Barilla’s website] If cooked right, it’s tender and toothsome, with some of the flavor of squid but with more depth and complexity. As ugly and gnarly-looking as dead octopuses are, alive in the water they’re graceful and gorgeous. Soft and flexible, they can squeeze through a space as small as a soda can open on both ends. To camouflage themselves they can change colors to brown, orange, green or white, and their skin texture to look like seaweed, coral or rock.
I love the rococo octopus, so curly, paisley and purple (pink when cooked). It’s so fun to cook and good to eat that I thought it would be more popular by now. Squid was unpopular until we started calling it “calamari” and deep-frying it, but I don't foresee the same fate for octopus. "Pulpo" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Although there was a dish called octopus in red wine in my phrase book when I visited Greece in 1980, I didn’t get a chance to try it until seven years later at a Roman cafeteria with my husband. We each ordered a platter of it, cold, marinated and simply cooked. The sheer quantity and newness of it was daunting, but it was surprisingly tender and appealing. Later my father-in-law Angelo’s pasta with octopus really made me fall in love with the stuff, a dish so sumptuous I begged him to give me the recipe. Although I love octopus salad, too, the way I cook it most often is all’Angelo.
Octopus is tough to tenderize and if it’s not cooked right it can be too chewy. Methods vary around the world for dealing with it. The Italians simmer it with a cork, the Spaniards freeze it first or dunk it three times in boiling water, and the Greeks bang it on rocks, then hang it in the sun for a day or marinate it. The Australians put it in a cement mixer, and the Japanese merely blanch it quickly, slice it thin and enjoy its chewiness.
As for me, I usually buy it frozen, which the only way I can find it these days anyway. Then I dip it in and out of boiling water three times and simmer it whole with a cork until it’s tender, which can be up to a couple of hours depending on its size. Octopus is rarely cut up until after it’s cooked.
Although octopuses can weigh 200 pounds, sometimes you can find little baby ones, which are cute and relatively quick to cook. But most of the ones you’ll find in stores, if you can find them, weigh about one to four pounds. After long simmering they cook down to only a fraction of that.
At Antichi Sapori on Rt. 28 in Kingston [now closed] and at Marion’s Country Kitchen in Woodstock, you can find grilled octopus. At El Coqui in Kingston [also closed] you might get it marinated in a garlicky salad or in a mofongo with mashed plantains. Further afield, at Uncle Nick’s in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, they serve a delectable grilled octopus drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. In Greece they adore octopus so much that they have to import some to meet the demand. They stew it, fry it, pickle it, put into pie or soup, bake it in parchment, grind it and make it into patties, or grill it and dip it in ouzo. In the Dodecanese they eat huge two-pound octopus eggs, dried and raw or grilled, and they fry the ink sacs in olive oil and eat them with bread.
Cuttlefish is even harder to find than octopus. I found some once at a now-gone local Grand Union at Christmas time, which I stuffed and served with pasta. It’s similar to squid, but it never grows over a foot long and its body is flat rather than round. Its flesh is denser, thicker and meatier than squid’s. Its inner bone is fed to pet birds and its ink was once used to write and draw with. I’ve had it many times with its ink in Sicily as the intensely scrumptious spaghetti neri, or black spaghetti. I’ve had fried tiny ones in Palermo. At the Evergreen Hotel in Saigon we loved a dish they called “Fried Squid” that was actually battered thick-skinned cuttlefish, served with red and orange sauces for dipping, ketchup and Vietnamese chili sauce respectively.
I just thawed out large blocks of squid and octopus for Christmas Eve dinner at my Sicilian mother-in-law’s, as part of the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes. With the addition of steamed mussels I made a seafood salad with the cephalopods, along with lemon, fennel, celery and parsley. Because Italians like to cook cephalopods for Christmas, you might still find some frozen in your local market around now.
[Note: as of 9-2-13 octopus dishes are frequently available locally at Elephant in Kingston and Panzur in Tivoli. Please click "Get in Touch" above if you know of any others places currently serving it.]