So Babs and I are standing in line at the Handpicked Shellfish Company stall at Parliament Hill Farmers Market, buying groceries before we head north to an all-day housewarming party. It suddenly dawns on us that it might be good manners to bring a housewarming present.
Shit. The train we want to catch is in an hour, so whatever we get will have to be from the farmer's market. Ok. Manageable, surely.
"How about a chocolate cake?" says Babs.
But by now we've inched forward enough to really eyeball the fish stall's briny wares. And there it is. A housewarming gift for the ages.
"How about a giant squid?" says I.
Most days Babs and I escalate each other's food lunacy. Not today.
Why. Do. You. Always. Have. To. Be. So. Ridiculous? Why. Can't. We. Just. Get. A. Chocolate. Cake. Like. Normal. People?
It's too late of course. I'm transfixed by this squid that's as long as my forearm. Maybe longer.
"Oh come on. Your friends eat squid. One of them even ate cod sperm sushi. I can clean and cook the squid for them. Plus think of the comedy value! Your friends will love it!"
Did I say cod sperm sushi? Yes it's true. But that's another story for another time.
"They're cooking! You're going to hijack their dinner party?"
"There are 8 of us! It'll be a snack! They don't have to cook it if they don't want to. I can clean it for them and they can keep it. If they actually hate it I'll take it home. I won't be offended."
(In fact I'm now starting to hope they'll hate it so I can keep it...)
"What's wrong with chocolate cake? Why can't we just get some nice chocolate cake?"
"Who says we can't get them chocolate cake? You can get them chocolate cake if you want. I'm getting them a giant squid."
I get a massive exhalation and rolling of the eyes.
After an afternoon of pub crawling in our friends' new neighbourhood, it's time to unveil the housewarming presents. When it comes to our turn, I usher everyone into the kitchen, hand Babs my camera to document the unveiling, make everyone close their eyes, pull Captain Nemo's nemesis from the fridge, hoist out the sucker(s) out over the sink and go...
Eyes open. Then widen. Shrieks ensue. Laughter. Applause. Hugs, even!
I relate the story of our mini-argument at the market. Our hostess El says, "The thing is, I can make a chocolate cake, but I can't make a squid."
Girlfriend speaks the truth!
Babs is now laughing along as well. He's very gracious like that.
I get to work gutting and cleaning and cooking the squid so that it can join the dinner table as an appetiser. I really liked the result (yes the squid as well as sweet vindication) so here's what I did with it.
Serves 8 appetiser portions
1 large packet panko crumbs
Fine ground salt
Fine ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
Oil for deep frying (rice bran oil is best if you can find it, but sunflower or vegetable or groundnut oil all fine)
1 key lime
A few large slices of red chilli and a few sprigs of spring onion and coriander for garnishing
Prepping the squid
If you're a seafood fan it's worth 1) buying squid whole and fresh, instead of the bland watery rubbish rubberbandy supermarket calamari rings. Do a taste test and decide for yourself; 2) Learning how to gut a squid yourself. The one and only time I asked a London fishmonger to clean a squid for me, I damn near had a heart attack. More used to customers who just want calamari rings, he threw away the best crunchy bits like the squid "wings" and a few of the tentacles! GAH! Never again.
Here's how you do it:
- Gently pull off the "wings" and set aside
- Gently pull out the head, with guts attending
- Use a knife and cut down the length of the squid until you get a large arrowhead shaped flap
- Remove any gut or mucus, and the clear-plasticky spine
- Use scissors or a small sharp knife to trim off the squid guts, eyes and beak
- If the head is large enough, separate the tentacles into singles or pairs
- Gently score the flap and the wings
- Cut rectangles of about 3cm by 2cm
Prepping the breadcrumbs
- Pour the panko breadcrumbs into a bowl
- Add salt, pepper and chilli powder to taste. On its own it should taste just a touch over-salty and over-spicy because it's not going to have a lot of time to work itself into the squid, and you're going to lose some of it in the deep frying process
- Place a small bowl with the beaten eggs next to the bowl of Panko. Make sure both are close to the stove to minimise drippage
Cooking the squid
- Fill a small saucepan halfway with oil, and turn stove to the highest flame possible and heat until the oil just starts to smoke
- Dredge a few pieces of squid through the egg, then cover lightly with the Panko
- Drop slowly into the hot oil and let fry for ~30 seconds. Use tongs and an apron to protect yourself from the inevitable hot oil splatter! I learned the hard way that hot oil can burn holes right through your clothes!
- Remove squid from the oil, and let sit on a large plate lined with a wadge of paper napkins to soak up the excess oil
- Repeat until all the squid has been fried
- Garnish with chili, spring onion and coriander, and a good squeeze of lime
Serve with just the faintest infusion of smugness. Not too much though! The sweet smell of victory can quickly turn acrid and bitter if overegged. Much better to balance it out with feggedaboudit and good grace.
And maybe some sweet chilli sauce.