zondag 15 februari 2009

Culinary Adventure: Scary Creatures

Time Out Amsterdam, January 2009

Our gastronomic explorer, Klary Koopmans, tackles many-tentacled marine monsters

When I´m buying my salmon or shrimp at the fishmonger´s, my eye sometimes drifts to the sea creatures at the back of the display: octopus, squid and cuttlefish, those strange shrimp- and fish-eating invertebrates. I´ve enjoyed them in restaurants, as pulpo, calamari and sepia. But could I successfully cook them myself?

Not today. Maybe next time. They´re just a little bit creepy, and how would I handle all those slippery tentacles and suckers?

I´m not typically a squeamish cook. I´ve butchered rabbits; I like to cut up whole ducks and chickens; I render my own lard. I´ve even cooked tripe and deboned pigs´ feet (admittedly, the pigs´ feet took me a little bit out of my comfort zone). I don´t mind getting my hands bloody. But maybe it´s the absence of blood in these eight-legged creatures that makes them scary: with their pale, translucent flesh and slimy texture, they almost don´t look like real animals. But this is a new year, so I´m going to challenge myself. It´s time to go on a nautical adventure with these creatures of the sea.

There are a lot of recipes for octopus and squid floating around, but I always find that the best thing to do when you´re wondering how to prepare a certain food item is to ask the person who´s selling it. So I ask Jacob at my favorite fishmonger´s (Siem Schilder) at the Albert Cuypmarkt how to tackle my first squid and octopus. His advice echoes what I´ve read in cookbooks and online: both squid and cuttlefish should be cooked for less than two minutes, or more than half an hour. Anything in between results in a rubbery texture. As for the octopus, I´ve read that Greek fishermen suggest beating the beast 99 times against a rocky surface to ensure tender flesh. In Amsterdam, where stony bluffs are not quite as available, freezing them, and then boiling them for over an hour, apparently has the same effect.

Before the actual cooking, I have to deal with cleaning them. Squid and cuttlefish can be bought pre-cleaned, but to go for the maximum freak-out value, I buy them as they are. As the whole animals sit on my counter, with their legs in a tangle and their beady eyes staring at me, I kind of regret this. But here we go.

Once I get started I find the cleaning isn´t difficult, although taking their insides out is a messy job, especially if you accidentally pierce the little ink sac hidden inside the body... like I did. We suggest an apron for this part.

My cleaned pieces of squid are cooked a minute each side on a hot griddle pan, then sprinkled with salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. I´ve done well: the results are just the right amount of chewy, and with an unobtrusive flavour that would probably benefit from some more assertive seasonings.

For the cuttlefish I make a simple, garlicky tomato sauce in which I braise the pieces of fish for about half an hour. They come out beautifully tender and infused with tomato flavour: a winner, and something I can see myself making again.

The octopus is my biggest challenge. One of my favorite Amsterdam restaurants (Orontes, Albert Cuypstraat 40; and Hugo de Grootplein 8) serves an excellent octopus salad that I´ve ordered many times, with a very lemony dressing, lots of chopped dill and gherkins. So this is the dish I´m going to try at home.

Unfortunately, no recipe prepares you for what actually happens when you put the octopus into tha pan of boiling water. The soft flesh immediately stiffens, the tentacles curl and the flesh turns from dull grey to a beetroot pink. All of this makes the boiled octopus look even more frightening than the raw one, and it takes me a couple of deep breaths before I can face chopping the thing up.

But when the cooked pieces are added to the dressing, the finished salad in no way reminds you of what the animal looked like when you were preparing it. This is a delicious and very successful dish.

As it turns out, these creatures are a lot easier to cook at home than I thought. And next time, a purple octopus sitting upright won´t fill me with dread.

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