It took a medium-sized disaster to teach me how to really cook calamari.
So our kitchen flooded when we were away (don’t ask), and we’ve been living out of suitcases in various houses and motels, the dogs and me and the Beloved Husband, while the contractors and the insurance company put us back together (thank you, State Farm). And this is not a small disaster–like a fender bender–or a large disaster–like illness or injury–or, fortunately, a mega large disaster which we can all imagine and shiver at, and which I will hurry past. No, this is a garden variety medium-sized disaster, where you and/or loved ones are inconvenienced but not harmed. Which has its own repercussions at meal time, i.e.: meal times are a particularly good time to knit up any raveled sleeve of care, laugh away any frustrations, reaffirm that you are all whole and well and safe and relatively sane, and remember how lucky you are to be all that when so many people aren’t.
The lovely woman helping me with my insurance claim has been steadfastly amazed that we would rather live in cheaper digs and make our own meals, than in the (Insurance reimbursabal) local hotels with all our restaurant meals paid for. But, while we like to dine out very much, it is not the same as dining in. And it is definitely not the same as the healing power of dining in while you have the cuts and bruises and scrapes of a medium-sized disaster.
And, as always, I learn things from thinking about what we’re going to eat, and then preparing it, and then sitting down with the Beloved to dine.
Hence the calamari.
Now, why calamari, you are saying. Or perhaps you are even saying, what calamari? What IS calamari? So I’ll start with that. Better to be blunt and have it out immediately rather than trying to put one over on you. Calamari is squid. Yep. Those little things with tentacles. Except in this case, calamari is calamari steaks, which are, presumably, cut from the bodies of REALLY BIG SQUID. These steaks are white, and oval shaped, and scored for tenderness, and they’re usually fairly inexpensive as seafood goes; I know they’re sustainable…at least they are for the moment, who knows for how much longer with those industrial sized, computer driven nets dragging every inch of the deep sea floor these days?
But for now, we can enjoy calamari steaks unmolested by guilty thoughts of using up every fish in the sea. Which also adds to a pleasant dining experience.
We both love calamari. The Dear Husband especially relishes it when I cook it, as I used to do in the days before our kitchen was a construction site, dried and lightly floured, sauteed quickly in hot oil and butter, then taken out and kept warm while I deglaze the pan with a little white wine and some vinegar from the chopped up capers I add at the last minute with some paper thin lemon slices. A swirl of butter melted in the sauce as I take the pan off the heat and turn the steaks over in it, a sprinkling of chopped parsley, and he’s very happy. I usually serve this with a little steamed brown rice, and some sliced tomato, say, or corn on the cob, or, in the winter, a pile of buttered peas (frozen are perfectly fine, as a matter of fact).
Here’s the thing about living out of suitcases in a variety of vacation homes: the pot/pan/condiment situation is very sketchy at best. You’re dealing with an eccentric array of cooking equipment, and an odd choice of leftover gourmet flavorings left behind by previous guests. This means that I keep a box with us through every move that includes some olive oil, some vinegar, some honey, a bottle of soy sauce, two bottles of hot sauce, a packet of dried red pepper pods, a jar of garlic salt, and, of course, a pepper mill. Also a few packages of pasta and some cans of tomatoes. A jar of hot salsa, naturally. Then every time we go near a market, I buy a lemon, an onion, misc. veggies and fruit, and at least two heads of garlic.
This gives me enough choices for what to dine upon, as it interacts in my imagination with the too small pan to normally boil pasta, the cheap aluminum wok, and the scratched up, ancient teflon coated pans (in varying sizes) that you always find in these rentals.
Of course, though, there are always baking dishes. Lasagna pans. Every rental of any kind I’ve ever been in didn’t fail to have a pyrex lasagna pan.
So we had been living off the usual salads, and pasta dishes (arrabiata, meaning tomato sauce with garlic and red pepper, being always a favorite fallback position), and baked potatoes because there’s always a toaster oven and I can always go home and get butter out of my freezer, presently plugged into a wall in my living room. Tortillas with melted cheddar and salsa. That kind of thing.
I was getting a little tired of the old standbys., but we were exhausted after a day of more than usually tedious errand running, so I whipped through the market as our last errand. I was wistfully hoping for some seafood. Something for a change. But everything in the market–the EXPENSIVE market in town, too, so there was no excuse–had been packed, literally, days before, or, in the case of the halibut packed that day, cost an outrageous twenty five bucks a pound.
So on my way to the wine section–I really needed a bottle at this point–I had a look in the freezer section. And there were these calamari steaks at a more reasonable $7 a pound, so I threw those in the basket, grabbed two bottles of rose, and headed for the checkout. On the way there, I caught a whiff of freshly baked bread, and saw, to my delight, that Ken of New Sammy’s must have just delivered their sourdough bread; it was still warm. I grabbed a loaf of that (who wouldn’t have), and was out of there in record time.
Back at the rental, though, I realized I didn’t have my usual calamari cuisine accoutrements. No flour, first off. I scoured the cupboards, but all I could find were packets of gelatin (what could they have been doing, making jam?), and some microwave popcorn. And I was uneasy at the sight of those teflon pans. They were so old and scratched I had my doubts about being able to unstick the fish, let alone about what kind of coating chemicals might come with it when it did get unpanned.
Also, the fish was still frozen, and it’s just about impossible to get a nice brown crust on a calamari steak that’s still frozen. Too much liquid.
And THEN to top it all off I realized I didn’t have any rice. I did have some leftover cucumber/tomato/onion/lime juice salad. And I had bought some corn on the cob. So that was okay. But it seemed like we needed something more…
I got another whiff of that lovely bread as I prowled the kitchen. It smelled wonderful. And I thought, what a shame to have such fresh bread and not use it for something. And then I mentally hit myself on the forehead with the heel of my hand, and said, silently, “Idiot!”
Calamari sandwiches. Of course. And then it wouldn’t matter how brown the steaks were, just how they tasted. Then I thought, but those pans are NOT for high heat sauteeing. No, sirree. So I rooted around in the cupboards and found the aforementioned lasagna pan. Standing there contemplating it, a vague memory floated through my head, a memory of the SUNSET fish book (a very sensible and useful thing to have in any kitchen), where, among the many ways to prepare fish of all kinds, they recommend something I believe they call ‘ovenfrying’. I am not completely clear on their instructions, since that cookbook, like so much else, is packed in one of the many white boxes littering my living room at present, but what I seemed to recall was that it involved heating the oven to 500 degrees, putting a pan with oil in till the oil sizzled, then cooking the fish quickly.
Well, it was worth a try, I thought. Why not? So I tried it, with olive oil, and with a lot of chopped garlic thrown on the steaks when I turned them over, so the house smelled incredibly of Spain. And I served them as sandwiches, on slices of fresh sourdough bread, one side which was buttered, and the other spread with hot salsa.
Oh, and I almost forgot–I found the heart of some escarole lurking in the fridge, and I had sauteed that, and spread the cooked greens on the buttered side of the bread, put the calamari on top, enclosed the sandwich, and served with the cucumber/tomato/onions salad and some hot corn on the cob.
It was unutterably delicious. And browned. And garlicky. And messy as hell: the next day, I rooted around till I found a steel wool pad, thankfully, and set to work trying to return the lasagna pan to its former clarity. An impossible job, it’s still a little golden in spots from the high heat of the oil, but this is what happens to pots and pans in rental accomodations. Or should. I personally think it’s nicer to see evidence that a kitchen was in happy use before I get to it.
And this is how to make CALAMARI SANDWICHES WITH BRAISED ESCAROLE AND SALSA IN A VACATION RENTAL.
Ingredients for two:
Four slices sourdough bread
Two calamari steaks
A half head of escarole
As much fresh garlic as you please
A jar of hot salsa
Take pyrex baking dish, or similar, that will hold the calamari steaks flat. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Put in oven.
Heat oven to 500 degrees.
On top of oven, heat a wide frying pan to medium high, and add a little olive oil. When oil is heated, add a crushed garlic clove and the escarole, washed and chopped (don’t dry it, it will cook in the liquid left on the leaves). Stir escarole around to coat, turn down the heat, put a lid on if you have one (or a cookie sheet, or something to help the veggies steam), take off the heat when tender. Salt.
If calamari steaks are unfrozen, dry on some paper towels, then add to the oil in the oven. If frozen, don’t bother drying, just put in–you’ll just cook them twice as long; it won’t hurt them at all. If unfrozen, cook for three minutes, salt, then turn and scatter chopped garlic on top. Salt a little more. Cook for another two minutes–they should be done quickly, too long and they’ll turn rubbery. If frozen, just double time, five minutes on each side.
Butter two slices of bread. Spread salsa on the other two. Spread escarole on the buttered halves.
When the calamari is done, scoop it out and put one piece each on the escarole spread bread. Sprinkle whatever loose garlic cloves and olive oil from the baking pan still left. (Careful! That oil is HOT.) Cover each sandwich with its other half, cut in two, and serve with lots of paper napkins–this is messy.
Messy food is so delicious. And it’s worth trying to scrub that dish back to pristine shape. You won’t be able to manage it, but you can think as you do about how good all that garlicky oil and salsa and squid and greens tasted all squished together the night before.
And it almost makes it up to you for being kicked out of your own kitchen by fate. At least, it did for us.