15 MAY 2004, Page 84

Squid for supper

Simon Courtauld

In marine lore, giant squid are the monsters of the deep. I remember being told that when one squid had coiled a tentacle round a fishing boat off the Azores and the fisherman had hacked it off, it was estimated from the piece of tentacle which he brought back to port that it would have had a total length of some 27 feet. The overall length of a giant squid can apparently reach 60 feet. At the other end of the squid scale are the minuscule little babies, known as chopitos in southern Spain, which are fried in batter and eaten whole; about 30 of them will provide a reasonable first course.

An extraordinary creature is this cephalopod, a word meaning 'head-footed' and referring to the way in which its arms and tentacles, like those of the octopus and cuttle-fish, sprout directly from its head. (If anyone wants to be excessively well informed on the subject, my edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica devotes 17 pages to cephalopoda.) The best way to learn about squid is to take a knife and cut one up, ready for the pan or pot. While to some people this might be an unpleasant task, I have to say that I find it rather satisfying. The head and tentacles are easily detached from the body, then the eyes, the ink bags and a little crusty piece within the tentacles are removed. (1 am grateful to Elizabeth David for the information that this last object, according to Dumas, is 'non pas un nez mais l'anus au milieu du visage') The fins should be cut from the body and all the thin purplish membrane peeled off. The gunge is easily squeezed from the cone-shaped body, and the transparent spine bone removed; this is a thing of beauty, resembling a delicate quill pen. Then, if you insist, you can cut the body into rings, but don't throw away the fins or tentacles.

A lot of people think of squid only as fried calamari rings, and pretty tasteless they can be, often large, overcooked, dried up and unpleasantly chewy. But when flash-fried, together with the tentacles, in a little olive oil, with lemon juice and pepper, they can taste quite different. The body of the squid may also be cut once down the side and flattened out, then lightly scored into diamond patterns with a knife and cut into pieces about three inches square. When put into a very hot pan and briefly fried, they will curl up and look rather like miniature hand grenades. With some chopped red chilli, the flavour can be fairly explosive too.

The important thing, of course, is not to overcook squid when frying it. On the other hand it can be stewed slowly in, say, red wine, with onions, garlic and herbs. The classic Spanish dish of calamares en su tinta is made with tomatoes, parsley, garlic, wine and the fish's ink (which can be bought separately), all cooked slowly with the squid for an hour or more. Since the body of the squid is the perfect shape for stuffing, that is often what is done with it. Chopped raw ham is a good ingredient, also breadcrumbs or hard-boiled egg, in addition to onion, garlic and parsley. It is a good idea to skewer the stuffed squid with a toothpick before cooking, first browned in hot oil, then casseroled slowly with a splash or two of sherry at the end.

Of the other two members of the cephalopod family — octopus and cuttlefish — I know little. In northern Italy they stew all three together, and I have been fascinated to see boxes of cuttle-fish, covered in ink, in the Venice fish market by the Rialto bridge. In Galicia, northern Spain, I have seen octopus boiled in metal drums and have eaten them from wooden bowls. But my most vivid memory of octopus was eating them at a village festival in Japan, fried in balls of batter, and served from a street stall by our daughter.

I am happy to stay with squid, however, which were once almost impossible to find in this country but are now readily available. The little squid which I buy in our local Waitrose supermarket are ideal for searing in a pan with olive oil, garlic, paprika and wine vinegar. Half a dozen of them with salad make a good supper, and cost less than a pound.