Call It Calamari
Squid Festival fishermen and chefs will demonstrate dozens of ways to prepare Monterey's favorite cephalopod.
Thursday, May 21, 1998
Put a few of the things that make Monterey County famous in a pan, stir ''em up, and you''ll have made yourself a pretty fine dish. But while artichokes might be fairly familiar, garlic holds no mystery, and wine is pretty easy to figure out, ask most people how they usually fix squid and you''ll get knitted eyebrows and a furrowed forehead--the international symbol for ''huh?''
If you''re realizing it''s time to improve your relationship with MoCo''s favorite ten-armed member of the cephalopod class of mollusks, now''s your chance. This weekend hails the 15th Annual Great Monterey Squid Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds. Both Saturday and Sunday you''ll find some of your favorite local chefs and other squid experts paying homage to this humble, yet remarkably versatile and delicious delicacy.
Of course, it''s only a delicacy if you understand how to prepare squid, or calamari, its more frequent menu moniker. And if you''ve never done it before, the prospect can be somewhat off-putting. California market squid--the variety that''s most often fished locally, reaching about 10 to 12 inches in length--is often available already cleaned and cut into rings. But if you don''t mind a little kitchen adventure, learning how to clean it yourself will save you some money and lend some first-hand experience in getting to know this fascinating creature a little better.
At the Squid Festival this weekend, local fishermen will be demonstrating some of the fine points involved in the cleaning process. This amazingly intelligent invertebrate is made up of only a few well-designed parts: an elongated body, or mantle; a pair of fins that, working with a siphon, propels it along through the water; its eight wiggly arms; one eye; and two feeding tentacles. The trick to cleaning squid is in managing to remove the ink sac without puncturing it and getting splatted in the eye. With a little practice, after loosening the internal shell (the pen, as it''s called), the viscera may all be removed in one clean sweep. All that''s left to do is to cut away the tentacles (considered by some to be the best, crunchiest part when fried) and scrape the fine exterior skin from the mantle.
Of course, that''s if you''re talking the usual local variety. As luck--and El Nino--would have it, this year''s star of the show is running a month or two late showing up in the Bay. "Last year was a real good year for squid," Sal Tringale, co-owner of Monterey Fish Company reports. "This year, with the warmer water, they haven''t come in to lay their eggs." California''s round-haul fleet fishes spawning populations in limited areas around Monterey and Southern California. So with this year''s weather patterns, it''s a matter of waiting. And if you''re cooking it instead of catching it, you''re likely to be using the frozen variety right now.
The good news is that the biomass outlook for the squid population is considered good, according to the California Seafood Council. In 1996 fishermen caught a record 177 million pounds of market squid, valued at $33.3 million dollars. And this past winter, Mexican squid made an appearance in our local waters, something of a rarity this far north. "These squid reach about two to three feet in length," Tringale explains, "with several layers of skin to remove. They also have much thicker bodies and must be tenderized before cooking."
"That''s what you call ''poor man''s abalone,''" laughs George Hadres, site manager and instructor for the California Culinary Academy in Salinas. "This type of squid can be used as a stand-alone kind of dish, like you might find abalone prepared." Whereas market price for abalone has sky-rocketed to $70 or $80 a pound, Mexican squid will only set you back $5 or $6. "It works well as a steak, grilled with just some lemon butter, or dipped into seasoned bread crumbs and sauted, and pairs easily with sauces. Or it can also be lightly floured or battered and deep-fried, like you find our local calamari," he adds.
But, as it turns out, Hadres has something completely different in mind for his demonstration at the Squid Festival. "I''ll be using small, whole baby squid that work very well in a Greek dish that I do. These squid are only about one inch in length and I find them at local Asian markets, where they''re imported." Though very often squid is found dried, pickled or canned in ethnic groceries, Hadres searches for them fresh on Mondays and Fridays, when they''re just flown in. "I''ll be sauteing them in olive oil with garlic, tomato and oregano and finishing the dish with feta cheese and ouzo. It''s the mild texture of squid that works well at importing other flavors, in this case, the tomato and ouzo," he finishes, "as well as making it incredibly versatile to use."
David Beckwith, chef at Il Fornaio, agrees. "There are an endless number of ways that squid can be prepared. I''ll be making an Italian dish called calamari ripiene, which means ''stuffed squid''. After you lightly tenderize the steak, it''s filled with the tentacles, rock shrimp and bread crumbs, lightly sauted, and finished in the oven with a little marinara sauce. The only trick is not to overcook it," he explains. "It''s done after about 12 minutes in the oven."
Adding to the scope and span of the limitless ways with calamari, Wendy Little from Zig Zag will demonstrate two very different dishes: squid done Mediterranean-style in saffron broth, and a cold spicy Thai squid salad. From Grasing''s, Chef Kurt Grasing does squid a la Monterey, utilizing other local ingredients like garlic and artichokes with pearl pasta risotto. His partner, Narsai David will demo a Spanish-style paella salad with squid.
And should there be any lingering doubts as to the versatility of the incredible edible pride of Monterey County, Wendy Brodie will delight and amaze crowds with seafood lasagna, made with black squid ink pasta. All proof that this is a cephalopod loaded with possibilities. cw