Fredericksburg First Friday Food Ministry
Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.
--Jules Verne

Squid for the Squeamish
  Our salad from the south of France will convert you

Ask a group of people, “Do you like squid?” and a fair number will instantly shout “NO!” even if they’ve never tasted one. When you ask those have actually eaten squid and who didn’t like it what—exactly—they didn’t like, most will respond, “It tasted like a rubber tire!” (I don’t really know WHAT a tire tastes like, but I do know that what people are describing is calamari that’s been badly prepared. Cook squid too long—or not long enough—and eating it is rather like trying to chew up a rubber band. Not a pleasant dinner table experience.

Still, I blame “squid phobia” on Jules Verne more than bad cooks. The 1969 publication of his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea made a big splash with readers: underwater exploration and submarines suddenly were the rage, but Verne’s description of a fierce battle between the submarine’s crew and a 32-foot long squid just about sank the culinary fortune of the hapless cephalopod.

Pity. The squid's eye and brain are highly developed, and while they move with amazing speed through the water, they are not inclined to attack. Squid are fish-eaters; mammals hold no appeal for them. Squid, on the other hand, are a favorite edible of the dolphins, seabirds, whales, and fish that hunt them.

Squid are hunted because they are “good eats.” Other sea creatures know it. Smart cooks do, too, and Mediterranean cooks make good use of them. Baked, stuffed, fried, sautéed, steamed. As an appetizer, and entrée a salad, squid makes the rounds.

But even to those who are used to pulling fish and seafood straight from the oceans, squid are queer looking creatures. No backbone, a BIG eye and all those tentacles waving about is enough to make anybody squirm. So, for our sophisticated salad we don’t attempt to deal with the whole squid. We only use the bodies (fishmongers refer to them as “tubes”) and forget the tentacles (“tents” to the fishmonger) and we buy them cleaned and usually pre-sliced into ¼-inch rings that bear no resemblance to deep sea submarine-battling monsters!

If you’ve never tried squid, give them a try. They have a wonderful sweet taste that reminds me of a cross between a shrimp and a sea scallop, with the bonus of affordability and sustainability. Our quick to prepare salad is an ideal introduction to these misunderstood critters; the bold flavors of olives, feta, fennel and fresh herbs are gentled by the calamari and fresh lemon juice and zest adds a special brightness that almost all seafood needs for brightness. Don’t hesitate to switch out herbs: if tarragon isn’t your favorite, try basil. Or stick with mint alone. And if you positively, absolutely can’t abide the thought of squid, wild Gulf shrimp are very nice, too! 
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil – for the tomato/garlic mixture

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil – for the dressing

4 cloves garlic - thinly sliced

2-3 Tbs thinly sliced fennel bulb (reserve fronds and stalks)
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes)

1 cup grape tomatoes

Kosher salt - to taste

freshly ground pepper - to taste (or Aleppo pepper)

1 pound calamari - cut into 1/2-inch rings (defrost if frozen)

1 small lemon - zest and juice

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon or Italian flat-leaf parsley - leaves roughly chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint - leaves roughly chopped

1/4 cup mixed brine-packed olives (Niçoise, Kalamata, Picholine, etc.)

¼ cup cutting celery, chopped fine or thinly sliced celery stalks (inner stalks) and leaves (optional)

6 ounces brine packed feta cheese (optional), cut into ½-inch cubes
Make the dressing: Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the lemon zest and juice, along with some salt and pepper into a small lidded container. Shake vigorously to mix (or use a whisk). Set aside.

For the salad: In a sauté pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and fennel and sauté gently; don’t let the garlic color, you are only trying to release its fragrance. This should take about 30 seconds. As soon as the air fills with the rich scent of garlic, add the tomatoes and Aleppo pepper (or red chili flakes) along with a good pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Sauté for an additional 3-5 minutes, just until the tomatoes begin to soften—don’t let them burst. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

In a large saucepan, bring a couple of quarts of water to a gentle boil. Add enough kosher salt to make the water taste like the sea. If you think of it, throw in a couple of fresh or dried bay leaves and a slice or two of fresh ginger root. As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, add the calamari (defrosted and drained if previously frozen). Watch the pot carefully; calamari cooks very quickly, so as soon as the rings turn opaque (30 seconds to a minute)—drain the pot into a colander, then immediately plunge the calamari into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Rapid cooking is the secret to tender calamari, so be vigilant in watching the clock and then “shocking” the calamari in the ice water.

As soon as the calamari are cool (a couple of minutes at the most) drain thoroughly in a colander. Pat dry; then add to the cooled tomato, fennel, and garlic mixture. Add the reserved dressing and mix well. If you are going to serve the salad within the next four hours, now is the time to add the olives, and optional celery and feta, as well as the herbs. If you are not serving the salad until the next day, hold off on adding the herbs until shortly before serving to preserve their bright green color.

Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Serves 4.
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