Rubber Bands Redeemed

The first time I ate squid was on a college archaeology trip to Greece.  Our professor was off conferring with an excavator about permission to see a dig in progress and all of the students were wandering around a tiny rural town with nothing much to do.  The hours of waiting were long; everyone was bored.  I was the only one with a book to read, and I had finished it.  Most of the others would only have been happy if a shopping mall had manifested out of the ether, or if the proverbial Hot Euro Chicks appeared to whisk them away to idylls unknown. 

Dinnertime came.  Still no professor.  It was 7 p.m., still too early for any normal Greek person to want dinner, but we Americans were starving.  We stumbled into the only open restaurant–a deserted orektika place just off the main square.  Orektika are like appetizers or tapas, but (obviously) Greek.  This was before appetizer-only restaurants became widespread in America (even last year a colleague was shocked to hear me talking about a tapas bar, because she was unfamiliar with the word and thus could only conclude that I was planning a trip to a topless bar), but I don’t think any of us were surprised by the idea.  We were hungry and we wanted food.

We ordered everything on the menu.  No one in the group was a foodie, least of all me (my cooking skills at the time extended to occasional sauteed chicken breasts interspersed with Hamburger Helper and creatively augmented ramen noodles), but no one was picky about ‘foreign’ cuisine, either.  By this time we had been in Greece for two weeks, and we were used to the flavors and types of Greek food, used to their ways of preparing vegetables, used to the different types of protein.  

Successions of dishes came in myriad waves.  The midwestern meat-and-potatoes guys ate the tripe and the wild bitter greens with no complaints.  Olives were consumed by the gallon, as were quarts of very unfortunate ouzo.  None of us actually liked each other, so there was very little conversation as we passed all the little dishes around the table.

We’d been at it for about 20 minutes when the plate of squid in tomato sauce came within reach.  I ladled a spoonful onto my plate, nestling it next to the marinated feta and the fried zucchini.  A bite.  Oh.  Ew.  Yes indeed–they were exactly as the stereotype has it, like tough, springy rubber bands.  They were impossible to bite through and bounced around inside the mouth as if sentient and trying to get away.  I did not finish my spoonful. 

I could say that I avoided squid for years, but one can hardly be said to be avoiding something if one never encounters it.  Squid isn’t particularly prevalent on American menus, unless deep-fried, and as I rarely went out to dinner at all, let alone to fried seafood joints, squid was not on my dining radar at all.

When I moved to the city, though, I encountered fancy supermarkets.  Fancy supermarkets with fresh-fish counters that carried more than just yer basic farmed salmon and peel-and-eat shrimp.  Lo, squid appeared before me, and I saw that it was cheap.  Cheaper than most other sources of protein.  This made it a must-purchase. 

Having by this time consumed more cookbooks than it would be possible, in cubic feet, to fit in my home kitchen, I was aware of the prevailing wisdom on how to cook squid.  That is, barely. Many recipe writers seemed to be taking lessons from those who wrote recipes for martinis, calling for the bottle of vermouth to be waved in arcane swoops across the room from the glass of gin: the squid was to be passed through the air over the hot pan a couple of times, and then eaten.  Cook the squid any longer, the recipes warned, and the result would be just what I’d had in Greece–inedible rubbery strings, not fit for man or beast.  I took this advice to heart, and learned to make very good seared squid.  Some of my seafood salads might have been a little translucent, but my sources were trustworthy, and the salads were tasty.

It wasn’t long, though, before I began noticing the other recipes for squid–the ones that called for cooking it for an hour, or even more!  I rejected the idea, the memory of the orektika squid still repugnant.  But I couldn’t quite put the method out of my mind.  It was interesting, and more, it was untried (at least by me).  Last night I finally caved in and gave it a try.

It was easy, really–as simple as any of the quick-cooked seafood salads.  One sears the squid until browned, then adds a simple raw tomato sauce to the pan (mine was just a 15-oz can of diced tomatoes whiled in a blender with a red jalapeno, some white wine and some salt).  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, cover, and let bubble away for an hour.  After the first minute or two, of course, the squid curls up and rubberizes, but over the remaining hour an unexpected transformation occurs.  The squid gets tougher and tougher until it cannot get any more sproingy, but then, suddenly, it relaxes.  The rings of squid uncurl and become meltingly tender–much more tender than can be achieved by even the lightest and quickest of cooking methods.

Frankly, I was astonished.  Teacherman says that he only likes it ‘as much as’ seared squid, but I think the results of long-cooking are far and away superior to the quicker method.  Simmering anything for a hour isn’t a reasonable proposition on a weeknight, but slow-simmer squid will enter my repertoire as a delicious variation on ragu, perfect for a meal of comfort food.

Published in: on June 4, 2007 at 1:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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