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Beyond Fried Calamari

Fried calamari has to be one of the most popular restaurant dishes. Whether you're eating American, Asian, Italian or Latin American, you can bet that fried calamari (with some sort of dipping sauce) will be listed under appetizers.

Yet whenever I — or, more often, my kids — order it, what arrives at the table is a plate of what looks like a pile of tiny onion rings. Not a tentacle in sight. It's as if they've been effectively banned from the dinner table.

Indeed, it is my guess that many people who order calamari have no idea that what they're eating is squid. This is an ominous trend, in my opinion — an extension of what we've seen over the years as we've moved further and further away from unprocessed food: breaded chicken nuggets that bear no resemblance in looks or taste to the real bird; flash-frozen fish fillets and shelled shrimp with nary a head in sight to remind us of what they once were.

So what, you say? Why do we need to know that calamari is squid? Who cares about the tentacles? I posed that question to Ramon Martinez, the chef at Jose Andres' tapas restaurant Jaleo, in Crystal City, Va. Martinez does serve the tentacles at his restaurant, as well as shrimp with their heads still on. What's more, he encourages diners to suck on the shrimp heads, for that is where the flavor is.

To me, the tentacles are the best part. When fried, they curl up like some wild undersea flower; braised, they become tender and impart a wonderful sweet, nutty sea flavor to sauce. They make whatever dish they are a part of infinitely more interesting, to adults and kids alike.

Nick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari — especially the tentacles — at a restaurant in Italy.
Domenica Marchetti for NPR /
Nick and Adriana Marchetti enjoy fried calamari — especially the tentacles — at a restaurant in Italy.

"We're talking about food," Martinez says. "It's life and it's health. It's important. We have to know what we're eating, the quality, where it comes from. A lot of food has a lot of history behind it. We must respect that. We don't want to lose that knowledge."

Consider this a plea and an appreciation for calamari, in all its tentacular (OK, I made up that word) glory. To me, the tentacles are the best part. When fried, they curl up like some wild undersea flower; braised, they become tender and impart a wonderful sweet, nutty sea flavor to sauce. They make whatever dish they are a part of infinitely more interesting, to adults and kids alike (check out the picture of my kids Nick and Adriana enjoying fried calamari in Italy).

In Italy, tiny, succulent baby calamari is a staple in the cuisine of the seaside towns that line the Adriatic coast, where my mother grew up. It is served not only fried, but also grilled, stuffed, in marinated seafood salads and in pasta and risotto dishes — which are sometimes tastily sauced with the creatures' briny, purple-black ink.

I've been eating squid all my life, which I suppose is why I've never been squeamish about it. Every Christmas Eve, my mother prepares calamari braised in a rich tomato sauce (I've adapted the recipe, below, and turned it into a wonderful sauce for pasta).

When we were kids, my sister and I had our own name for calamari: creepy crawlers. We loved spearing the squiggly tentacles with our forks and munching on them.

To me, the only intimidating feature of calamari is cleaning it. This is a somewhat labor-intensive task that involves separating the tentacles from the sac, removing the creature's beak, guts and cartilage and peeling off its exterior mottled red-brown skin. For years, my mother executed this chore over the kitchen sink, and I'm ashamed to say I never offered to help. Now, however, thanks to the same convenient fish counter services that provide us with cleaned fish and headless shrimp, we can also purchase cleaned calamari — and yes, for that I am grateful. At $7.99 per pound at my local fish store, it is no longer dirt cheap, but it is relatively inexpensive compared with, say, jumbo shrimp, which sell for twice that price.

Consider, also, calamari's nutritional value. It is high in protein, low in fat and an excellent source of vitamin B12. As if that weren't enough, calamari also is listed as a "good alternative" choice in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which rates seafood according to its sustainability and "ocean friendly" qualities. Squid, the guide says, "grow quickly and reproduce at a young age, making them highly resilient to fishing pressure."

When it comes to cooking calamari, there is really only one rule: Do it fast, or do it slow. Anything in between will result in something approximating cooked rubber bands. For calamari salad, for example, a quick boil in water is all you need to prepare the squid before dressing it. For sauces and braises, let the calamari simmer gently in sauce at a leisurely pace. Either way, you are in for a creepy crawly treat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenica Marchetti
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