If you had told my mother that I’d grow up to be a fairly open-minded food lover and chronicler she would have laughed in your face, and probably mocked you in Italian. Then she would have yelled at me to eat my broccoli.
I was an incredibly picky kid. Among the foods that would literally make me gag if you forced me to eat them were:
- Any Leafy Green Other Than Iceberg, But Especially Escarole, Which is of the Devil
- Any Non-Fried-Shrimp Marine Life
- Brown Rice
- The Aforementioned Broccoli
- Non-Cheddar Cheeses
Right? It was ridiculous! How the hell do you cook without freaking ONION? Or tomato, for that matter; we are talking about a born and raised Italian. Truly she was the contemporary incarnation of Saint Monica, the patron saint of – among other things – patience and disappointing children.
(Please, leave an example of your own childhood food foible in the comments so I feel like less of a toolbox.)
(And: I’m quite happy with my current state of non-Catholicity, but I do sometimes miss the pageantry and rich history, like all the patron saints. They have one for everything! Patron saint of children late in learning to walk? Check! Patron saint for protection against mice? There are three of them, in case one is busy when the mouse overlords come to claim their territory. A patron saint for both bomb manufacturers AND mathematicians? Why not? In addition, I note with interest that the patron saint of clowns and carneys is also the patron saint of murderers, which cannot be a coincidence.)
Given my extreme food squeamishness, a lot of which had to do with texture, my undying love of calamari – squid – never did make a whole lot of sense. Still, it is the case that I never met a squid I didn’t like, and by “like” I mean “want to eat immediately.”
Even weirder was that the tentacles were my absolute favorite part; they still are. The rings, you could maybe fool yourself into thinking you weren’t eating a squid. The tentacles, however, announce their decided squidness with a barbaric yawp. Who decided these things were edible? Probably the same person who thought it would be a good idea to eat the seabugs we know and love as “crawfish.” We must thank this individual for (1) their openmindedness; (2) complete disregard for the safety of their person and/or digestive tract; or (3) both.
The point: I could induce vomiting and hysterical weeping over a cannellini bean, but would eat tentacles as happily as the day is long.
A secondary point: You have no idea how much I wished I had a little toy submarine so I could have created a little 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea tableau for you.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that as I flipped through my just-acquired copy of Mourad Lahlou’s New Moroccan, my eyes would alight on the squid and napa cabbage with harissa, a North African chile paste. I’ve always wanted to try making homemade harissa and Brian and I are both squid lovers.
This recipe calls for “quick harissa” (the book also includes recipes for a dry harissa spice rub and another saucy version requiring much soaking and grinding of chiles), which takes a zippy two hours. Water, tomato puree, cumin, paprika, a shit-ton of cayenne, parsley, cilantro, garlic, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper simmer slowly, slowly, slowly, until the sauce is fragrant, dark, thick and the cooked-down tomatoes have turned into an umami bomb. The whole mixture is blended with some olive oil and strained, making a luscious and VERY VERY SPICY sauce that you should taste with the tip of a finger and not by heartily licking the spatula you used to scrape it into the bowl, if I may offer some advice.
The squid rings and tentacles are cooked separately: the rings just get a quick bath in boiling water followed by a cold shock, and are tossed with a salad of napa cabbage, cilantro and mint dressed with a combo of more harissa, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar.
The tentacles get marinated in the harissa. They’re then supposed to be grilled, if you’re the kind of person who’s fine with lighting up the whole charcoal grill for thirty seconds of tentacle cookery, which you may have discerned from my tone that I am not. So I seared ‘em quick-like in a super hot pan, and got a creepy kind of satisfaction from watching them curl up like the Wicked Witch’s legs after she got housed.
The cabbage-and-ring salad is plated up first, followed by the tentacles and finished with a sprinkling of microgreens. According to the book, Lahlou’s preference is for Lamb’s Blood; my personal adaptation is to use whichever the hell microgreen Fresh Direct is selling for less than a million dollars. These particular bargain-basement microgreens happened to include reddish leaves, so if you stand ten feet away and squint, you can pretend it’s Lamb’s Blood.
I figured I would love this dinner, and I was not disappointed. The calamari rings, which only spent ten seconds in the boiling water, were perfectly tender with no rubberiness to be found. The salad was crisp and fresh and bracing from the spice and acid, and the still-hot tentacles were a savory contrast. I heartily approve of Mr. Lahlou’s style, in spite of the unorthodox inclusion of fish sauce, and see some preserved lemons and fresh cheese in my future.
Of course, childhood me would have refused to eat this because childhood me was a hardheaded dumbass. Thankfully, adult me is a dumbass with a more curious palate.
Except for escarole. NEVER SURRENDER!