The question is: Why make fried calamari for yourself, when you can get it at virtually any restaurant in the Western world, from the swankest of haute cuisine food temples to the Guy Fieri-est Ameridude chain crapholes, and it's no worse than pretty decent in all of them?
And the answer is: Because if you never make it for yourself, you will never know precisely how you like to make it for yourself, and will go through your life with this one enjoyable experience dictated to you entirely by faceless strangers in kitchens you aren't even allowed to enter, and then when you die, your life will have been just that much less fully lived, that much less a thing that is ending than a thing that never began in the first place, an empty unthinking representation of life like the reflection in the mirror of someone who actually lived, because you only reflected the choices of others and did not make any of your own, except the choice to not make choices, which is like saying, Can we get this living nonsense over with so that I can go back to sleep, or never being born in the first place, but only described as a hypothetical by barren people with short memories.
And if that's not convincing, hell, think of all the hot Pinterest action you'll get from the sweet photos of your homemade calamari.
Let's make some fried calamari. It's gonna be kind of a pain in the ass, and then you'll taste the finished output, and it will erase the annoyance of its production from your mind utterly and forever. Ready? Let's do it.
To begin, acquire squid. A pound of it will appetize a half-dozen people, no problem. At most fish markets and supermarket seafood counters, you'll see squid sold in two separate parts: the mantle (the long sorta cone-shaped exterior of the squid's body) and the tentacles (the squid's, uh, tentacles, of course). The familiar O-shaped rings you see in your typical order of fried calamari come from the mantle. However! If you have the option to choose, definitely don't just buy a bunch of mantles for your fried calamari. The tentacles are delicious, and even more so in combination with those familiar mantle-rings, where they add some visual and textural variety, as well as an opportunity to feel superior to the big ol' weenies who get all ew tentacles grodyyyy!!!! about the curled-up fried tentacles.
Decide for yourself, of course. But, know going in that if you should happen to ask your squinty sea-dog fishmonger or pimply teen seafood clerk for a 50-50 mix of mantles and tentacles in your order of squid, somewhere an internet food person will know to nod sagely, give a thumbs-up sign to no one in particular, and mutter, "Fuckin' A, buddy ... fuckin' A," possibly frightening the other parents at the playground.
So you've got your squid, and you took it home and unwrapped it, and oh, wow, it stinks real bad. I mean it stinks reeeeeeal bad. Oh, man. Real bad!
Yep. Squid stinks before you cook it. Even when it's fresh! The squid is just a stinkin'-ass mollusk, apparently. The good news is, it will smell better—it will smell yummy!—when it is cooked. With this in mind, as well as the knowledge that your squid is not going to get any fresher-smelling if you delay, and the awareness that the sooner you finish this series of tasks, the sooner you can wash the squid-stink off of your poor hands, chop your squid mantles into rings. Use your judgment in determining how thick to make the rings, but probably don't go thinner than, say, half an inch, or your serving dish of fried calamari will look like a bowl full of rubber bands, which will not be appetizing to anyone who hasn't spent the previous month eating British food.
Also, in addition to your judgment, use a very, very sharp knife to cut the squid. This is an instance in which a couple minutes spent sharpening your biggest kitchen knife will pay off. The flesh of the squid's mantle has a very weird (and gross! Let's not forget gross), slippery-yet-firm character, and seems to be almost totally non-porous; a dull knife will just slide along it, and you'll have to really pin it down with your fingers to get the knife to cut through it. A sharp knife, by contrast, will glide smoothly through the mantle and spare you a great deal of annoyance. Sharpen your knife for a couple of minutes. It's worth the work.
Now, you've got your squid mantles cut into rings, and your squid tentacles, uh, not cut into rings, and your kitchen smells like Captain Nemo's butt-sweat, and everything is just kind of horrible and gross and bad. Great! Dump all your squid parts into a big bowl, and soak the squid in buttermilk for at least an hour, and all the way overnight if you can. Stick the bowl in the fridge while the squid soaks, and slap some plastic wrap over it if it's staying in there overnight. The lactic acid in the buttermilk will soften the squid a bit, to help prevent it becoming rubbery and tough during cooking. (You'll also cook the squid in a way designed to prevent rubberiness, but the buttermilk makes a real difference, especially if you give it hours and hours to do its job.)
This gives you some time to do other stuff, such as washing your hands, washing your kitchen, washing your hands again, smelling your hands, saying to yourself, Eh, I dunno, this kinda still smells like squid to me, washing them again, and searching for "bionic hand replacements" on Google. Also, while you've got some time, make some tasty aioli-type bullshit to serve as an eventual dip for your fried calamari. This is pretty straightforward: whisk some minced garlic together with a couple of egg yolks, a dab of dijon mustard, and some black pepper, then slowly drizzle in some lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil while you whisk furiously, until the stuff has the consistency and fatty sheen of mayonnaise, but tastes like garlic and lemon and olive oil and black pepper and makes you want to paint your chest with it. Then, chop some of your herb of choice (parsley's lovely, here) and fold that in. There. Aioli-type bullshit.
Also, chop some pickled peperoncini (from a jar!) into thin rings. Set these aside. We'll get back to them.
Eventually, you will run out of patience for whatever that dumb squid is doing in the goddamn fridge. Haul it out, and proceed. Heat a pot of oil on your stove. Sturdy oil (vegetable, canola, corn, peanut), a good three or four inches of it, nice and hot. (If you have a frying thermometer, aim for, oh, 375 degrees. If you don't, look for what an intellectually clear-eyed and honest evaluation would describe as an "energetic, but not, like, huge explosion of boiling oil" bubbling reaction when you dip the end of a wooden spoon into the oil.)
While the oil heats up, drain the squid in a colander, rinse it with some cold water to get the buttermilk off, and press it between a couple of stacks of paper towels to get as much water out as you can manage. Hey: The squid still stinks like hell! Goddammit.
Now, OK. Look. The next part is kind of annoying. (You: "Yeah, and also all the parts that came before it." Yes. Shut up.) You're going to apply some breading to your calamari. About that.
Many fried calamari recipes instruct you to make batter, dip your squid-parts into the batter, and then fry them. Which, OK, fine, that's tasty, but also: wrong. Because squid, pretty much however you cook it, is delicately flavored—and, when cooked properly, delicately textured, too—a bunch of heavy-ass batter is gonna overwhelm it and leave your mouth with the general impression of a fishy, gently chewy onion ring. And hey: There's nothing wrong with a fishy, gently chewy onion ring! Except that presumably you are making fried calamari because you want to eat fried calamari and not onion rings, or else the choice to spend the quite extreme price difference between a white onion and a pound of squid will turn out to have been a foolish one.
No. Wisdom, attend! The right way to bread calamari is: lightly, so as to flatter and not obscure it. So, instead of a thick, blunt batter, you're going to dress your squid in a modest coating of dry cornstarch. Cornstarch is great for this, because generally it won't clump thickly to your squid, and, when handled properly, it turns fabulously crunchy even in the extremely short time your calamari will spend in the hot oil. On the other hand, the "when handled properly" from the previous sentence is precisely why this part is annoying as hell.
Here is the thing. Ordinarily, if you were about to fry some other kind of small seafood—say, baby shrimp or bay scallops or whatever—the instructions would have you chuck them all into a big sturdy freezer-bag with some cornstarch and some seasonings, then seal the bag and toss it around to coat everything, then cook the, say, shrimp in big-handful-sized batches (so as not to lower the temperature of the oil too much by dumping too much food into it at once) while their brethren just cool out in the bag with the cornstarch and stuff on them. The problem with this is that, in my experience at least, squid behaves weirdly when you leave it in a bag with dry cornstarch (or dry flour, or whatever).
That is, even if the squid seems pretty dry when you add the cornstarch to it, after a couple of minutes in there, the cornstarch will turn to sticky non-Newtonian paste, and then it won't turn crispy during cooking, at least not before the squid becomes rubber. Maybe it's the cornstarch drawing heretofore-hidden moisture out of the squid; maybe it's magic; maybe I'm not a fucking chemist or whatever and you should quit worrying about why this happens so that we can proceed to avoiding it.
The thing to do, then, is to give the squid and the cornstarch as little time together as possible before they go into the oil. If you have, like, an enormous pot with an enormous quantity of hot oil in it, this is pretty simple: You can just toss all the squid with, oh, a half a cup of cornstarch (or however much is required to coat the stuff not-obscenely), a hearty pinch of salt, another hearty pinch of black pepper, and maybe a wee bit of cayenne powder, then proceed immediately to cooking all of it at the same time in your enormous pot with an enormous quantity of hot oil in it.
On the other hand, if you do not have an enormous pot with an enormous quantity of hot oil in it, you will have to work in batches. And this is where it gets annoying. Because you will have to dump, oh, a handful of squid-parts into that freezer bag at a time, toss them with a quantity of your mixture of cornstarch, salt, black pepper, and cayenne powder, and then immediately cook them, and then repeat the process with the next handful-sized batch of squid-parts, and so on, until all your squid has been coated and cooked. This can be awfully annoying. The real nightmare is that you won't even have time to rage out, because the squid cooks super fast.
Oh right, the cooking part. Whether you're cooking all the squid at once in a big-ass pot with a lot of oil, or cooking it in batches because your pot is not ridiculous, you will have to cook the squid as soon as it is coated with cornstarch, so that the cornstarch does not have a chance to become gummy. So, gently lower your cornstarch-coated squid into the oil (if you have a fry basket or long-handled metal colander, that'll be great for this, but a slotted spoon will work just fine, too, if you're working in small batches), which should bubble furiously right away, and, after about 90 seconds but no longer than two minutes of cooking, get the squid the hell back out of there.
This is the trick, with squid. You may already be aware of it. You can produce delicate, delicious squid by cooking it for just a few moments with very high heat, or by cooking it for an absurdly long time with very low heat; anything between those two extremes will yield rubbery, chewy, shitty squid, pretty much no matter what you do. So. Again. After about 90 seconds of cooking, but also before two minutes have elapsed, and whether the cornstarch seems golden-brown or not, get the squid the hell out of the oil and onto a drying rack or paper towel.
If you are working in batches, hey, do another batch. We'll wait.
[Montage of you cooking squid, becoming self-conscious about all of us waiting for you to finish, pretending not to care, furtively sobbing a little, rallying, finishing the job, giving yourself the smallest of fist-pumps.]
Oh, you're finished? Great! No, it didn't take all that long at all. No, really! We barely even noticed the time going by. Your curtains are lovely.
Dump your fried calamari into a serving bowl. Drop your thin peperoncini slices onto the calamari, and kinda give everything a half-assed toss or two with your hands to distribute it evenly. Spritz the bowl with a lemon wedge, and stick a couple of lemon wedges into the bowl to be available should the need arise for more spritzing. Schlep this serving bowl to a table, along with a smaller bowl with your aioli-type substance in it.
Hey! Let's eat some fried calamari.
Serve your fried calamari with white wine, or cold beer, or, in a mishmash of cultures that will surely incur upon your head the wrath of the dweebs, a pitcher of margaritas. Do not serve your fried calamari with forks, because fuck that, your hands are marvelous and you can use them to eat fried calamari.
Pinch a piece of calamari together with a disk of peperoncini, give it a small dip in your aioli-type substance, direct it toward the facial opening of your choosing (I recommend the mouth), and fire away. Oh my God so many things are happening—crunch and salt and briny squidiness and heat and vinegar and garlic and lemon and salt and the smooth richness of the aioli and summer has climaxed already, already it's on its way out. but this is all of it, at once, all the color and sensation and possibility of it, tumbling and exploding and whirling through your head, unless you chose to insert it into your nose, which, man, that probably wasn't the hottest choice you ever made.
Try again. There's lots of fried calamari left. That, at least, was a good choice you made for yourself.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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