It was a cold and drizzly Irish morning at the Cavan Farmers Market. Making my usual rounds I took a mental note of everything on offer– must get a couple of éclairs from The Mason’s Apron to bring home for breakfast, don’t forget to grab some eggs, the kale is looking good today—I saw the fishmonger was showing the fresh catch to another customer and something unusual caught my eye. I had never seen a whole squid, but there they were, a pile of ink-stained bodies and tangled tentacles. I had bought squid many times in the American grocery store, Whole Foods, but they were already cleaned and portioned. I was used to seeing neat rows of wingless calamari bodies, all exactly the same size, displayed over a mountain of pristine crushed ice. It was all so sterile, those neatly organized remnants of such weird and wonderful creatures.
Standing there in the rain looking at the squid, whose bulging eyes stared back at me blankly, I felt a mix of wonder and trepidation – how? How do you even approach cooking with these little monsters? I nervously approached the fishmonger, “Hello, about the squid, is there ink involved?” His answer was yes. A line of customers was forming behind me. “Well, I’ve never cooked with whole squid before, I think I’ll give it a try,” I said. “Is it very difficult?” He answered no and I could tell people were getting impatient for me to make a decision and move on. Feeling very brave, I quickly asked for three squid (before I had a chance to change my mind). The woman in line next to me belted out, “There’s your night gone!” referring to the mess and frustration that surely awaited me at home. I smiled meekly and headed home with my catch of the day.
At home I knew just where to look for squid guidance, The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Nick Fisher. The book provides step-by-step instructions and photos for the whole process. Hugh writes, “…you may find yourself freaked out by the prospect of getting to grips with their weird anatomy. Don’t worry: they may look as if they’ll be trouble but in fact they are amazingly easy to clean.” You know what? He’s right!
Below you’ll find a step-by-step tutorial on How-To Prepare Squid, but first let’s talk about how-to cook it.
Squid is best cooked quickly over high heat or simmered low and slow – anything in between brings out its inherent rubbery texture. Inspired by Jamie Oliver’s Roasted Concertina Squid with Grilled Leeks and Warm Chorizo Dressing, I opted for a quick blast in a roaring hot oven. The “concertina” effect is created by sliding the mantle over a chef’s knife and using another knife to cut slits in the flesh without going all the way through the other side (see the very last photo in the squid tutorial). This allows the heat into the flesh more quickly and provides groves for soaking up a flavorful sauce. I’ve cooked Jamie’s recipe before (it’s fantastic), but on this particular day I didn’t have any chorizo. The pairing of sweet squid and smoked paprika inspired me to create my own dish, Moorish Roast Squid with Smoky Tomatoes and Saffron Couscous. This dish is a mix of Spanish and Middle Eastern flavors, made with beautiful Irish farmers market tomatoes and Swiss chard plus a sprig of rosemary from my herb garden.
Moorish Roast Squid with Smoky Tomatoes and Saffron Couscous
- 2 (medium-sized) squid bodies and the accompanying tentacles
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 pound (450g) cherry tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 bunch of Swiss chard
- 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
- 1 cup (180 g) couscous
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to the hottest setting. Prepare the concertina squid by placing your chef’s knife flat inside the body and using another knife to cut slits in the flesh, as if you are making rings. This technique allows you to cut all the way through one side of the flesh, while the other side is untouched. Toss the squid in 1 teaspoon olive oil and season with a pinch of sea salt, and then set aside.
Prepare the couscous. Place the couscous in a medium-sized heat proof bowl. Pour 1 ¼ cup water into a small saucepan and add the saffron threads. Bring to a boil and pour the water over the couscous, and cover the bowl with a plate to allow the couscous to steam. Proceed with the recipe; the couscous will be ready in 10 minutes. Just before serving, fluff the cooked couscous with a fork and season with a couple pinches sea salt.
While the couscous steams, prepare the rest of the dish. Place a large high-sided pan (one that is oven safe) on the stove top and turn the heat to medium. Pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and 1 teaspoon rosemary leaves. Sauté the ingredients for one minute, stirring frequently. Prepare the tomatoes by slicing larger ones in half, but leave the small ones whole for a variety of textures. Add the tomatoes to the pan and sprinkle over the smoked paprika, along with a pinch of sea salt. Sauté the tomatoes for a couple of minutes, then add the squid and the rest of the rosemary leaves. Transfer the skillet to the top rack of the oven. Roast the squid till cooked through, about five minutes. The flesh will firm up and brown slightly.
Cook the Swiss chard while the squid roasts in the oven. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high with a tablespoon of olive oil. Slice the Swiss chard into ribbons and toss in the pan with a pinch of sea salt. Cook the leaves, stirring occasionally, until just wilted and tender. This will only take about 5 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
When the squid are cooked through, remove the pan from the oven and pluck out the squid bodies, setting them aside for a moment. Pour the sherry vinegar over the tomatoes and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Return the squid bodies to the pan, along with the sautéed Swiss chard leaves. Serve warm over the couscous. You will have more couscous than you need, so refrigerate any leftovers and enjoy them the next day tossed in a salad or soup.
How-To Prepare Whole Squid
The first thing you’ve got to do is separate the head and tentacles from the mantle (body). Take hold of the head by wrapping your fingers under the eyes and use your other hand to grasp the body. Pull the head apart from the body (all the entrails will be attached to the head).
Locate the quill, a long, slender, translucent shell easily pulled from the body with your fingers. Discard it and set the body aside.
Turn your attention to the head and tentacles. If you would like to try and save the ink (which can be used to add color to sauces, risotto or fresh pasta dough), find the small, narrow ink sac (it will be a dark bluish-black color). Carefully cut the ink sac open over a bowl and press out the ink.
Now it’s time to remove the hard, inedible beak from the head. Place your fingers in front of the eyes and push the hard flesh ball (feels like a small marble) backward through the tentacles. You will feel it pop through, then take a pair of scissors and cut off the ring of tentacles just below the eyes. Pull the hard ball from the tentacles and discard it. Rinse the tentacles and set them aside for cooking.
Pick up the body and remove the wings by pulling them back towards each other. The River Cottage Fish Book likens it to pulling someone’s elbows behind their back. The wings will tear off the body. If you’re working with a large squid (for the low and slow cooking method) it’s worth cleaning the wings, trimming and discarding the thick, cartilaginous piece, and tossing them into the pot. I found there wasn’t much wing left after trimming the small squid, nothing worth keeping.
Peel the pink membrane from the body and rinse it well. The book recommends turning the mantle cone inside out for two reasons: you can rinse the inside clean of all entrails and if you’re planning to cut squid rings they will hold their shape (rather than collapsing on themselves, as they would if you didn’t turn the body inside out). I found this takes a bit of practice, but gets easier once you get the hang of it. The book suggests using the handle of a wooden spoon to “push the pointed end of the body in on itself.” I found it easier to use my fingers, but give it a try and you’ll figure out what works best for you.
Finally, rinse the squid and either store the bodies and tentacles (in the coolest part of the fridge for up to a couple of days) or carry on with your recipe.
The last photo shows how to make the “concertina” effect I learned from Jamie Oliver: slide the mantle over a chef’s knife and use another knife to cut slits in the flesh without going all the way through the other side.
Other squid recipes to try: