On the face of it, one might think that squid was a somewhat unappetising proposition in the flesh. Those who are squeamish about their food – and I am firmly convinced their number has never been greater – could hardly warm to squid; it is covered in a strange purply-brown skin, is very slimy, has strange tentacles, a nasty little beak and a sac in its stomach full of pungent black ink. Were they to meet a squid in its natural state, many of its devotees would run a mile.
Of course, more often than not, squid turns up in breadcrumbed and fried rings and could not look more innocuous. It is this more genteel entry into society – often as calamari – that has guaranteed the cephalopod its acceptance. I have watched too many children spurn some of the finest fish in the sea because of bones, disregard lobster on the basis of its menacing appearance, reject razor clams, winkles, oysters and even mussels for a legion of minor peccadillos, and refuse octopus and the innocent cuttlefish only to accept squid with alacrity.
I make these observations purely out of curiosity. I am equally devoted to squid, as, of course, I am to most fish, molluscs, crustaceans and other cephalopods. I remain bemused that its simple cloak of breadcrumbs has gained it such universal acceptance. Strangely, even when robbed of this disguise, it still seems extraordinarily popular. Salt and pepper squid, which is little more than the naked flesh floured and highly seasoned, is almost equally popular. Squid grilled with chillies, rocket and lemon juice, in the manner of the River Café, has become a totemic dish of the bien pensants and their offspring. Squid has well and truly arrived and is more acceptable than steak and kidney pie or roly-poly pudding.
There is a simple rule for the cooking of squid and that is that it must be cooked a little or a lot. It must either be seized very briefly with a fierce heat – grill, pan, wok or water – or gently braised for quite a long time and with enough liquid to ensure it slowly becomes tender. These days, I tend to go for the latter option, allowing the squid to blend with other aromatic flavours. However, for those of you who are supposedly time poor, here is a quick, simple method that is not short of flavour.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Squid, celery and tomato salad
A good fishmonger will do the mucky bit of cleaning the squid but where would be the fun in that? Serves six at least.
1 head of leafy green celery
1 clove garlic
2 good pinches dried chilli flakes
1kg fresh squid
2 tbs white wine vinegar
250g datterini or similar cherry tomatoes
3-4 flat parsley stalks
50ml very good olive oil
Juice of a lemon
6 leaves of basil
● Remove the coarsest outside stalks of the celery and the green tops and save for another use. Cut the inner stalks thinly on the diagonal and place in a salad bowl. Peel and chop the garlic very fine and add to the celery. Season with salt and chilli flakes and mix well.
● Prepare the squid. Rinse it well in cold water and pull the tentacles, head, stomach and quill away from the body. Cut the tentacles away from the stomach sac and be careful to remove the nasty little beak at the base of the tentacles. Depending on size, cut the tentacles into smaller pieces. Discard the remainder unless you wish to keep the ink sac for another use such as pasta, risotto or sauce. Rinse the squid bodies under a cold tap, make sure they are perfectly clean inside and scrape away all the covering membrane or skin on the outside before cutting them into thin rings. Rinse these one more time.
● Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add a small handful of salt and the vinegar and bring back to the boil before adding all the squid pieces. As soon as the meat turns a brilliant, pearly white, drain the squid immediately and add it, while hot, to the celery in the bowl.
● Cut the tomatoes in half and add to the bowl. Pick the parsley leaves and a good handful of the pale celery leaves and chop coarsely. Add these in turn to the bowl and mix well with the olive oil. Add the lemon juice and taste, making sure there is enough salt and chilli flakes for a good kick. Sprinkle with a few shards of torn basil and serve at room temperature with some nice bread.
Rowley’s drinking choice
A briny, lemony white is called for to cut through the squid’s rich flavour. A Vermentino might well be the answer or a Verdicchio from the Marche with its extra acidity might be even better.
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