Squid: Treasure of the deep

Put off by a rubbery restaurant encounter, or convinced it's too unwieldy to cook? Don't be: squid is simple, sustainable and truly scrumptious, says Sophie Morris
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Squid is one of those foods that terrifies squeamish cooks. It's up there with testicles, hearts and anything with recognisable features, and it is lucky if it gets a look in in British kitchens at all. Squid is popular elsewhere though, gracing Mediterranean tables of most persuasions: Italian, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese, and it's a popular staple in Asian cuisine. Yet in general, the British shy away from squid.

If Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon restaurants, is right, that's all set to change. "Squid is just about to break through into the mainstream," he says. "They are cheap and delicious and simpler to cook than a lot of fish." The problem, he concedes, is that "the squid is a daunting beast. It is plasticky, hard to work with and it looks like a prehistoric monster."

This is true. We need to change attitudes about eating squid before the cooking can commence. Plenty of people have bad memories of their first chew of a squid ring, dismissing it as "rubbery", pushing it to one side and never going back. It might well have been fried in soggy, gelatinous batter instead of a perky, crisp coating.

Worse, if you like golden fried squid rings you might have had the misfortune to spot "calamari" on an otherwise indecipherable foreign menu and think you'd hit the jackpot, only to be served a deep bowl of unbattered squid slopping around in its own indigo ink.

If ordering squid on holiday or in a restaurant is a transgression, cooking it up at home is practically revolutionary. I used to cook it regularly when I lived by the sea in Spain, partly because it was cheap, and as long as the fishmonger had sorted out all the nasty bits, really easy to do (flash fry in a hot pan in oil, lime, chilli, garlic; serve). But mainly because other foreigners thought it was an incredibly difficult dish to pull off and were therefore impressed.

It has never crossed my mind to cook squid in the UK. I have never bought it or poked about inside its funny toilet-tube body full of all sorts of innards and – wait for it – three blue hearts. Come to think of it, I have never been served it by anyone else either. Unless you were keen to comsume the lot yourself, it would be a risky dinner-party dish. Yet squid is incredibly versatile, easy to cook and is very unusual to find in its ink in the UK. It works in salads, stir fries, baked or roast and even on the barbecue. You cook it fast and hot or slow and warm, and rare is the flavour or accompaniment that doesn't suit it.

Henry Dimbleby, as a founder of the recently formed Sustainable Restaurant Association, is preaching the virtues of squid because of its ethical value: compared to the dwindling stocks of so many species of fish, the oceans are practically full to the brim with squid.

They have a short life cycle of just one year and can be eaten for 10 months from March, so are very good at regenerating their own numbers unlike, say, turbots, which need six years to grow to a decent eating size. The Marine Conservation Society says line-caught squid is OK, but it suggests you exercise caution with trawler-caught squid. Dimbleby says that all British squid is a bycatch because there is so little demand for it here, and that we don't even get through all of this. There has never been much of a squid-importing industry in the UK because there isn't the call for it, but some supermarkets are importing squid. Trying to sort your way through the ever-changing ethics of fish and seafood eating is more treacherous than a minefield these days; it's practically a kamikaze mission. The easiest solution might be to give up entirely and start investigating squid.

Thankfully those arbiters of the national taste at Marks & Spencer have been readying our palates for the coming squid free-for-all predicted by Dimbleby. Last autumn M&S launched their first squid ready meal, salt and pepper squid coated in golden breadcrumbs with sweet chilli sauce, for £4.99. This month there are two new squid dishes – the widest choice ever offered to their customers. The £2.99 chargrilled calamari is a best-seller, and the seared calamari with lime, soy and ginger, £5.49, is also very popular. "Squid is proving a real hit with M&S customers," says Chloe Soppet, the store's fish buyer. "Chargrilled squid has been flying off the shelves. It's delicious seafood that we think our customers are now finding more approachable as they see it appearing more and more on restaurant menus around the country."

Waitrose sell squid rings and whole squid at their fresh fish counters (rings are £6.99 per kilo), jars of baby squid in olive oil (£5.29) and squid pieces in an inky sauce (£1.09), imported from Spain, which are also stocked in Sainsbury's. Tesco sells frozen squid for £4.

Katie Caldesi of the Caldesi restaurants in London and Bray has squid on her menus but admits it isn't exactly an easy sell. She makes clear this dish is not the preserve of fancy and complicated restaurant cooking and says she often serves the slow-cooked squid in chilli and tomato sauce at home for parties, with rice, couscous or bread, because it is easy to prepare in advance.

Caldesi believes the British are anxious about cooking in general and particularly about strange seafood like squid, because there isn't enough education about food. "Once you've got your head round the fact you cook it either very quickly or very slowly, it's easy," she says.

"A full squid is very messy to prepare, so get your fishmonger to do that. But it's used a lot in Italian cookery and it's time we started looking at different types of seafood here."

Her new book, Cook Italy, includes several squid recipes including a pizza topped with a seafood salad where the seafood is cooked then marinated in oil, vinegar and garlic. "Squid works like a sponge, absorbing all the flavour around it," she says. "It's good with spice, but make sure you add oil in a salad so it can soak up all the flavours."

Last week she began a series of cookery classes at her home in Buckinghamshire with a fish day, which will run again in November. Students prepared the slow-cooked squid in tomato and chilli sauce under expert guidance, which could be a good starting point for adding squid to your repertoire if you're unsure about attempting it alone.

According to the Irish chef Richard Corrigan, who owns the fish restaurant Bentley's, the most important thing to consider when buying fish is freshness. "Find out where it's from," he advises. "We can get them off the boat and have it on your plate in Piccadilly the next day, but wherever they're from, make sure they're fresh."

Corrigan's favourite squid dishes are seasoning it with olive oil, chilli and lemon and giving it two minutes on a hot griddle – "there's no more wondrous dish in summer" – or using the tentacles for a Chinese-style stir fry in oil and garlic.

His squid stuffed with chorizo and feta sounds fancy but anyone can pull it off. Stuff a mixture of chopped chorizo and feta into the cleaned body of a baby squid, fasten the end with a cocktail stick and fry in a hot pan for a minute on each side. Transfer the tubes to an oven dish and bake at 180C/360F/gas mark 4 for two minutes, before serving with baked fennel and the fried tentacles.

Nigella Lawson says her crispy squid with garlic mayo is one of her "supper standbys". She keeps frozen squid in her freezer to pull out in the morning, coats its in two parts semolina to one part cornflour, seasons with salt and paprika then fries in groundnut oil.

It is even easy to make squid look like you've gone to an awful lot of effort: cut open the body so you have a flat piece of squid then score it in both directions across the whole piece. Given just a minute or so on a hot pan, the piece will curl up into a tube again.

Does this all sound a bit easy? Are there no squid dishes out there that call for at least a little skill and showing off? You might spare a thought, while frying your ready-prepared squid rings or scoring the body of a baby squid, caught off the south coast, for the Californian fishermen who encountered shoals of giant squid earlier this year. They literally had to fight the 20lb to 60lb creatures on the decks of their boats, who were writhing around and blowing ink – their defence mechanism – everywhere. That's one scene you won't find on the aisles of M&S this summer.

Baby squid in confit onion sauce

Serves 6

1.2kg white salad onions, sliced

10 black peppercorns

4 bay leaves

180ml extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

2tsp sea salt flakes

2kg baby squid

5 garlic cloves

A handful of chopped parsley

40ml olive oil


Place the onion in a large saucepan with a heavy base. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, 80ml of the extra virgin olive oil and 1tsp of the sea salt flakes.

Cover and cook over a low heat, stirring regularly, for 2 hours or until the onion confit acquires a jam-like consistency.

Meanwhile, to clean the squid, pull the tentacles and clear cartilage out of the hoods. Peel off and discard the skin. Cut the tentacles off just below the eyes, then rinse the hoods and tentacles. Drain well and place in a bowl.

Place the garlic cloves on a chopping board, sprinkle with the remaining sea salt flakes and finely chop. Add to the squid with most of the parsley (reserve some for serving) and the remaining extra virgin olive oil. Mix well, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

When the onion confit is ready, heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over high heat until the oil is nearly smoking. Add the squid hoods and cook for 1 minute, then season to taste, turn and cook for another minute. Add the tentacles and cook for 30 seconds, then remove from the pan.

Spoon the onion confit over the warm serving plates. Stuff the squid tentacles back into the hoods and arrange them over the onion. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve hot.

Recipe taken from Movida Rustica, by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish (Murdoch, £25)

Barbecue squid with chilli and peppers

Serves 4

2 whole squid, skins off, cleaned inside, tentacles left on – about 230g each

1 red pepper

1 red chilli

1tsp dried chilli flakes

2 bay leaves

2 cloves garlic

50ml extra virgin olive oil

1tsp coriander seeds

Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper


Light your barbecue with plenty of good lumpwood charcoal.

Put all of the ingredients, apart from the squid, into a blender and blend until smooth.

Pour into a bowl and add the squid, mixing to ensure that the marinade covers all the squid meat. Leave the squid marinating for as long as you like.

When the barbecue is white and well burned down put the squid on the grill of the barbecue and cook for around 5-8 minutes, turning once. Baste it with extra liquid as you cook it.

Some extra tips you might try:

Cut chunks from the squid and eat it with a large salad and bread, or cut it into rings,

Blacken the peppers and remove the skins prior to cooking them, which delivers an extra smoky flavour.

You could coat the marinated squid in breadcrumbs for extra crunch.

If you have additional marinade for any barbecue, it is great boiled on the barbie in a metal bowl or small pan and used as a sauce.

Adapted by Henry Dimbleby from a dish created by Mitch Tonks, chef at the Seahorse in Dartmouth