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Here's Looking at You, Squid

August 20, 1992|STEVEN RAICHLEN | Raichlen is a Miami-based food writer. and

"What's in a name?" mused Shakespeare's Romeo. Plenty, when it comes to seafood. Call Loligo paelei by its Italian name, calamari , and the mouths of epicures will water. But refer to it by its English name, squid, and people think of bait.

Whatever you call it, a squid is an extraordinary creature. It has tentacles like an octopus, a beak like a parrot, eyes with lenses like mammals' and a reservoir of black ink like a fountain pen. It belongs to the mollusk family, but it lacks the shells of clams, oysters or mussels. Anatomically speaking, it's an invertebrate, but it has a thin, transparent, backbone-like structure known as the quill or pen.

Properly prepared, squid boasts a mild, sweet-tasting flesh that's worthy of its nickname, "poor man's abalone." It readily absorbs the flavors of the accompanying ingredients (especially wine and garlic) without losing its own. Squid lends itself to all sorts of cooking methods, including grilling, braising, sauteing, stewing, stuffing, stir-frying and deep-frying. It is equally at home in a Spanish paella, Japanese sushi, Thai curry and Italian fritto misto.

So why do so many people fear squid? Some, I suppose, are put off by its appearance. Imagine a white or pinkish cigar with fins at one end and, on the other end, long tentacles and large black eyeballs. Americans have always been squeamish about food with tentacles, although squid and octopus are immensely popular in the Mediterranean region and Asia.

Then there's the ink, which the squid discharges when in danger. The ensuing black cloud enables it to escape with a whoosh of its jet-propulsion system, leaving the predator literally in the dark. Messy as it may seem to fastidious Americans, squid ink has been prized for centuries by both artists and cooks. The former know it as sepia, the brown ink seen in Old Master drawings. The latter, especially Mediterranean cooks, use squid ink as a flavoring and coloring for stews and pastas.

Our fears are worth overcoming, for squid is one of the tastiest and most nutritious of Neptune's creatures. About 80% of the shellfish is edible, and most of that is pure protein. A six-ounce serving of cleaned squid contains 30 grams protein, 2.9 grams carbohydrates, 2.5 grams fat and only 153 calories. (To obtain the same amount of protein from tofu, you'd have to consume 2 1/2 times as many calories.)

Squid is also a good source of the B vitamins, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. (The latter seem to raise blood levels of high-density lipoproteins--the "good" cholesterol--while lowering low-density lipoproteins--the "bad" cholesterol.) It also contains traces of phosphorus and calcium.

The most popular squid variety on the East Coast is Loligo paelei ; on the West Coast, it's Loligo opalescens . The former averages 12 inches in length, the latter 8 inches, and both are sweet and tender. Sometimes you'll find Dosidicus gigas , also known as giant squid or grande calamar . Attaining a length of 5 feet, giant squid is fished on the Pacific Coast of South America and Mexico and is always sold frozen in steak form. (This is the stuff used to make counterfeit scallops.) Tougher than the North American varieties, it needs to be tenderized by pounding or braising.

Fresh squid can be found at many fishmongers, especially in Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods, and at an increasing number of supermarkets. It freezes well, so you can use commercially frozen squid or buy and freeze fresh squid for use in the future.

As with other seafood, when buying squid let your nose be the guide--it should smell mild and sweet, not fishy. Really fresh squid will be white in color, and the quill will pull away easily. Figure on 6 ounces cleaned squid (12 ounces whole squid) per person.

Most stores sell squid already cleaned. If you should come eyeball to eyeball with the whole animal, here's the method recommended by the authors of the "International Squid Cookbook" (Aris Books, 1981). First, cut off the tentacles just above the eyes. Squeeze the base of the tentacles to remove the "beak," the squid's mouth, which looks like a celluloid chickpea. Discard the beak but save the tentacles, which are especially tasty when fried.

Next, hold the body by the tail and scrape it lengthwise toward the head with the back of a knife. Turn the squid over and scrape again. This squeezes out the entrails, which should be discarded. Any remaining entrails can be scraped out with a small spoon.

Next, pierce the "pen" (the transparent quill) that protrudes from the head end with the knife. Pull the body away and the quill should slip right out. Discard it. Pull off any reddish skin on the body or tentacles with your fingers. (The skin is edible, but many people find it unattractive.) Rinse the body inside and out. It is now ready for stuffing or cutting into rings for frying.

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