2009 February: Sea Legs

2009 February: Sea LegsSquid is a wonderful ingredient with a terrible name. Thank goodness for its much more appealing Italian moniker, calamari, adopted with gusto by restaurateurs across this country. Calamari, a very cost-effective seafood, lends itself well to almost any cooking application, but is at its best as a grilled or fried appetizer. Indeed, fried calamari, or calamari fritti, has joined the ranks of ethnic appetizers, such as quesadillas and pot stickers, that are both familiar to and beloved by today’s diner.

Although simple in method, the technique in cooking a perfect calamari appetizer requires a delicate touch. When done right, fried calamari’s breading is blushed with gold and crisp, and the meat is tender and sweet. For a tender, fl avorful grilled calamari, a quick, hot pan is the order of the day. Pizza Today called upon The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, for a virtual class on how to prepare calamari.

Joseph DiPerri, associate professor of culinary arts at the CIA, recommends buying frozen squid that are already cleaned. “Fresh squid is messy, and not having to gut and clean them will save on labor,” he says. “The quality of the frozen product is really high.”

His method for fried calamari is traditional, but he offers tips on how to ensure the perfect result. First, the method: frozen squid is defrosted and cut into uniform rings. The rings are dredged with fl our and then deep-fried between 350 and 375 F in vegetable or peanut oil until pale yellow. “The smaller the squid, the more tender,” says DiPerri. “And the key to good calamari is making sure the coating is very thin. That way, it cooks really quickly, and is only in the fat for a short time.” If the calamari browns too much, DiPerri says, the protein has dehydrated and become tough.

When purchasing a convenience product of a frozen, breaded calamari, he suggests looking for rings with a light coating. “The same rule applies here,” he says. “If the breading is too thick, it will require longer cooking time, which will toughen the squid. You have no control of what’s under the breading, so experiment with a few different brands.”

DiPerri shares his formula for beerbattered calamari:
? 1 cup of fl our
? 1 whole egg
? pinch of salt and pepper
? paprika
? 12-ounce bottle of beer.

“I deep-fry for no more than a minute, and get a great result every time,” he says. His technique for preparing grilled calamari is cutting the bodies of the squid so they lie open and fl at. “If you leave the squid in tubes, they shrink and retain water,” says DiPerri. “But cutting them into fl at pieces allows better surface-area on the grill, and they cook more quickly.” He recommends marinating the squid in olive oil and lemon juice for about 30 minutes, then seasoning with salt and pepper. On high heat, he grills the squid, fl ipping once, for no more than three minutes.

At La Panetteria in Bethesda, Maryland, both fried calamari and grilled calamari are offered as appetizers. “We serve a lot more fried than grilled, but it’s good to have both of them on the menu,” says owner Harry Khayami.

He uses a frozen product for both applications, but goes with a 3- to 5-inch squid for the fried calamari. He cuts them into rings. Per order, he dunks them in whole milk, then fl ours them. He deepfries them in hot oil until golden brown, salts them and serves with a housemade calamari sauce.

For the grilled calamari, he uses the 5- to 8-inch frozen squid. Khayami cuts the tubes fl at and marinates them in olive oil and Italian herbs. He then grills them and serves them with slices of lemon. “The trick is to have a very hot grill,” he says. Gary Wynn, owner of the Italian Grotto in Scottsdale, Arizona, serves his fried calamari appetizer with a housemade diavolo sauce. He also uses frozen product, slicing it, then dredging it with fl our, garlic powder, parsley, basil and salt and pepper. He deep-fries the calamari until pale golden. “It’s the easiest thing to prepare, but you do have to make sure your oil is clean and you don’t fry it too long,” he says.

For those looking to expand their calamari-appetizer repertoire beyond grilled or fried, the CIA’s DiPerri suggests stuffed calamari or perhaps a calamari salad. For the former, he turns a squid inside out and stuffs it with squid tentacles, onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, fresh basil, oregano and thyme. He then braises it in a spicy tomato sauce. “The acidity in the tomato tenderizes the squid,” he says. For the latter, he poaches the squid in lemon juice, then cuts it into rings. He combines the rings with red, green and yellow peppers and red onion, drizzles it with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. “It’s so simple, but really showcases the calamari,” he says. ?

Calamari with Chipotle-Mayo Dipping Sauce

Vegetable oil, for deep-frying 2 cups all-purpose fl our 2 tablespoons dried cilantro Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 pound clean squid without tentacles, bodies cut into ½-inch rings 2 lemons, cut into wedges 1 cup chipotle-mayo dipping sauce

In a deep fryer, bring oil to 350 F. Mix the fl our, dried cilantro, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Working in small batches, toss the squid into the fl our mixture to coat. Carefully drop the squid into the oil; fry until crisp and very pale golden, about 1 minute per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fried calamari to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. For service, place the fried calamari and lemon wedges on a plate. Season with salt; serve with chipotle-mayo dipping sauce.

Chipotle-Mayo Dipping Sauce
Yield: 1 cup 1 cup mayonnaise

3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce 1 garlic clove, chopped Juice of ½ a lemon 1 tablespoon chopped fl at-leaf parsley Sea salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a food processor; blend until smooth. Chill for at least 1 hour; serve with fried calamari.

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.