Every time I pick up an octopus or a squid I can’t help thinking that something so ugly couldn’t possibly taste so good. But looks can often be deceiving and these creepy-looking cephalopods are utterly delicious when cooked in the right way.
For me, nothing beats super-fresh whole squid grilled over a fierce flame and sprinkled with garlic, parsley, olive oil and sea salt. The tentacle adventure needn’t be all that scary – just remember that there is one basic rule when cooking with cephalopods: they either need to be cooked quickly for a very short time, or slowly for a very long time; anything in between and you end up with something rather tough and unpleasant.
Some nations still seem to be a little nervous about things with tentacles, especially the British. Until fairly recently, British fishermen would throw squid and cuttlefish back into the sea! The Spanish have never been so squeamish or choosy and cephalopods are enormously popular throughout the country. There are many authentic squid (calamar), cuttlefish (sepia) and octopus (pulpo) recipes to be found, although fried squid (Calamar a la Romana) is probably the country’s favourite tapa.
A few years ago, I was extremely pleased to be invited out along the Cantabrian coast to fish for squid. What I hadn’t bargained for is that squid fishing is a nocturnal activity and that we were going to set to sea in a rather tiny rowing boat. Luckily I don’t suffer from seasickness, but as we rowed out to sea I must admit that I felt more than a little queasy and almost panic-stricken about the size of the waves. Squid are surface-swimmers, almost transparent and therefore invisible to predators.
The fishermen shine lights onto the water to attract the squid and cast out a thin line armed with tiny hooks every 20cm/8in, which is dragged along the surface to ensnare the squid. As they reeled the line back in, it was amazing to see the squid shooting ink and dramatically changing colours.
Hand-fishing with hook and line is painstaking and requires much patience, but the quality of the squid is substantially better than that of net-caught squid. A net-caught squid will have been bashed and crushed and will have sand inside its skin and body.
You have to wash net-caught squid thoroughly and completely remove the skin, which takes away both flavour and colour. In local Spanish fish markets you should look out for Calamar de Potera, which means the squid are line-caught and therefore of a much higher quality. Obviously they are a little more expensive, but they are well worth it.
Preparing fresh squid or cuttlefish is really a simple process and, once you’ve done it a couple of times, it becomes child play. Pull the head and tentacles away from the body, then skin the body and pull out the plastic-looking backbone cartilage. Cut the tentacles from the head just above the eye, then wash both the body and tentacles thoroughly in cold running water.
Grilled squid with chickpea, piquillo pepper and preserved lemon salad
- 2 medium squid, cleaned and sliced into large pieces
- 2tbsp olive oil, to drizzle
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 8 mint leaves, chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
- 12 piquillo peppers from a jar, sliced
- 200g cooked canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- 2 tbsp chopped mint leaves
- 2 tbsp capers, rinsed
- 1 tsp preserved lemon, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
1 large pinch sweet paprika (preferably Majorcan Tap de Cortí)
Sea salt, to taste
1 To make the salad, combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate for 1–2 hours to let the flavours mingle.
2 When ready to serve, heat a griddle or frying pan (skillet) until very hot. Season the pieces of squid and place them in the hot pan, along with a drizzle of olive oil. Cook for 30 seconds, until slightly caramelised.
3 Turn the squid over, add another drizzle of olive oil and spinkle with the chopped chilli and mint. Cook for 1 minute, then remove to a serving plate. Serve immediately with the chilled salad.