Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Beautiful Obsession

I don’t like it deep fried. Or stewed. Although as sushi it’s OK. In fact, I didn’t occur to me to eat it at all until I had the luck to try it prepared perfectly.

It is, after all, sort of an odd thing to eat.

In its raw form, it is all squishy, grayish white, with eyes and tentacles hanging all over. Covered in a slimy thin skin, with all sorts of yuck that has to be pulled out of the body before cooking.

And it has a bit of a body odor problem, too. No matter how fresh, everyone knows for a day or two what you cooked up.

I don’t even know what compelled me to try it the first time. We were in one of those ubiquitous Greek restaurants found throughout Europe outside of Greece. Dripping with faux Greek culture. But it had a wonderful patio, with a view of the water in the moonlight (I’m a romantic sucker for all things moonlight).

So I tried it.

The calamari they used were tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. Each one not even a bite. Grilled somehow, not deep fried. In a buttery lemony caper sauce. Tender – not chewy. Fresh tasting. I was hooked. Every time I saw this preparation of calamari, I ordered it. You can find this all over Europe, but not so often here in the US, if at all.

Of course, I eventually tried to make it myself.

It’s hard to find calamari here at all, let alone fresh. Despite our proximity to the ocean. Not the most popular item. It’s harder to find the tiny ones. I almost never do.

As a substitute, we found a frozen product at Trader Joe’s (a local small market chain in California) that sells ‘Calamari Steaks’. They are football shaped pieces of calamari, cleaned and ready to go. Not optimal, but good enough for every day use.

The difficulty with calamari, as anyone who has tried to cook it knows, is that it has a tendency to turn into chewing gum in an instant. My first attempts to cook it were absolute disasters.

Some research helped. And a lot of practice. And it always helps to be a bit obsessed.

The key to achieve the results I was looking for is to cook it HOT and FAST. And by hot – I mean smokin’ hot. Hot like they tell you never to cook things hot. And fast. I count to 30 slowly to myself (everyone already thinks I’m nuts, why add fuel to the fire?) per side. That’s it. You have to fight the tendency to leave it on longer.

If you don’t have the pan hot enough, 30 seconds per side won’t brown the stuff. If you leave it on more than 30 seconds, it becomes rubber. Unless you cook it another hour and let all the proteins heat up and relax. But that’s not what I’m after.

The last trick it to get the calamari dry before cooking. These things ooze water. And all that water inhibits any hopes of quick and hot cooking. I let them dry on several changes of paper towel for at least an hour. And wipe them off one more time.

Then I dust them very lightly in a seasoned flour. Salt and pepper, of course. Sometimes a touch of heat with cayenne pepper, things like that.

If you flash fry the dried and dusted little calamari in a super hot pan in olive oil for the 30 seconds per side as mentioned, you get super tender, super juicy calamari with just a touch of crunch on the outside.

I set these on a plate in a warmed 250ºF oven while I make the sauce. They cool off just as quick as they cook!

The sauce is just your basic Beurre Blanc, made with capers, garlic, lemon juice and butter. Of course, salt and pepper as well. I make it in the same pan I used to cook the calamari so some of that flavor is there as well.

The trick to beurre blanc, well, there are two tricks actually. The first is to reduce a sufficient amount of an acid (i.e. the lemons and capers) until it is almost evaporated away. The acid is what binds to the fat in the butter to make the sauce. Too much water remaining in the acid will break the sauce. You have to start with enough acid at the beginning so that you can add enough butter at the end for the amount of sauce you need to make. The second trick is to add the butter slowly with the heat turned off, stirring gently and constantly, letting the residual heat of the pan melt the butter. Too much heat or stirring will cause the sauce to separate (the flavor is still OK, but it looks bad). And adding too much butter to the amount of initial acid will either cause the sauce to separate, or result in a muted, oily tasting sauce. Either way a bad ending.

Swirl in some additional flavoring at the very end, such as parsley, salt and pepper, even a touch of mustard, if desired.

The garlic caper beurre blanc sauce is as much a part of the calamari experience to me as the fish itself. The two go together to make a supremely enjoyable whole.

It’s a fast and furious meal. Fun to make when it works out. Delicious to eat when you get the hang of it! A beautiful obsession!

Pan Roasted Calamari in Garlic Caper Beurre Blanc a la surfindaave
Serves 4

2 pounds small calamari, cleaned well, defrosted if frozen, set to dry for an hour on paper towels
1 cup flour
salt, pepper
1 tbsp additional seasonings if desired, such as cayenne pepper, garlic salt, etc.
olive oil
Caper garlic beurre blanc (recipe follows)
Parsley, chopped fine, for garnish
Lemon wedges for garnish, if desired

Heat oven to 250ºF. Place a heatproof serving plate in oven to warm.

Wipe calamari pieces dry.

Combine flour and seasonings on a plate. Lightly dust calamari pieces in flour, shaking off any extra.

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan until SMOKIN’ hot. Cook calamari in batches. Place calamari pieces in hot pan without crowding. Fry for 30 seconds per side, until just lightly browned. Turn, and fry for another 30 seconds. Remove to the heated serving plate and place back in oven. Repeat for remaining calamari pieces.

Arrange calamari on serving plate, drizzle sauce over top, sprinkle with parsley and garnish with lemon wedges, if desired. Serve immediately.

Garlic Caper Beurre Blanc
Recipe by surfindaave

3-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
olive oil
½ cup capers in vinegar, including liquid
juice from 2 lemons
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
salt, pepper
¼ cup parsley, chopped fine

Heat olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat. Sautee garlic for 1 minute, stirring. Add capers, liquid, and lemon juice. Reduce liquid until just a tiny bit is left. Turn off heat (remove pan from burner if electric stove). Swirl in 1 tbsp butter at a time, moving the butter around gently with a wooden spoon. Continue adding butter 1 tbsp at a time, swirling gently, as each piece completely melts. When all butter is added, season to taste with salt and pepper, and gently stir in parsley. Serve immediately.

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