Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stuffed Calamari

I grew up eating squid many different ways.  I'll never forget the first time I saw it on a restaurant menu, at the opening of Romano's Macaroni Grill, October 18th, 1992, in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I always remembered that opening because it was my birthday, and I had never seen anything like it.  The Brinker chain had brought Northern Italian cuisine to a town filled with Italian restaurants that featured lasagna, cannelloni, and fettucine alfredo.

It was something different, with bright, dazzling string lights along the ceiling and vases full of billowy white Gladiolus adorning the islands that lined the middle of the restaurant.  Linen - clad chunks of Reggiano Parmigiano anchored the islands with bowls of ice cubes with scoops at the ready.  Overly large pepper mills, jugs of chianti, and dozens of glasses stacked up on Lexan dividers were moved and shuffled and replaced all night long during the fast - paced dinners with two - hour long waits and crayon - drawn employee names on butcher paper.

I made some of my best friends during those 14 - day double shifts, working to make money to fly to New Mexico to see my then boyfriend now husband.  I learned some of my best sales skills then: multi - tasking, prioritizing, communicating well, upselling, efficiency, and working well both independently and as a team member towards personally set goals.

Once, my brother Thien Nguyen asked if I wanted to try the calamari differently from the fried option on the menu.  Thien was thinking of the way our mom used to prepare it, sauteed or simmered in some broth in a sauce pan in our little kitchen in Nashville, Arkansas.  He had then Executive Chef Ed prepare the calamari in olive oil, garlic, and white wine.  Best. Ever.  Toss in some cappellini pasta, and it's equally amazing.  The sauteed calamari never made it to the menu, but many of us often requested it.  To this day, nobody does it like this in town, that I know of.

Another common Italian style of preparing squid is to stuff it.  I was reading such a recipe in this month's issue of La Cucina Italiana when it reminded me of Vietnamese stuffed squid.  James Beard award winner Chef Charles Phan who has The Slanted Door in San Francisco has the Vietnamese version in his cookbook.  Mine is the quickest and easiest version of it!

Prepare the stuffing.  Line a steamer basket with banana leaves or lettuce.  Set a steamer insert inside a giant wok.
The giant wok is available quite inexpensively at Sam's Oriental in Little Rock and probably at any Asian market in other cities all around the country.  I use the bamboo steamer baskets, but I do not use the lid.  I use the large lid of the giant wok instead.  In discussions with several chefs, the bamboo steamer itself is not ideal.  The dome of the lid over the entire steamer basket lets the steam cook dim sum items much more quickly than if any of the steam escapes outside into your kitchen.  

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. squid, cleaned
  • 8 oz. ground pork
  • 1 bundle of bean thread noodles, optional
  • 2 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup of chives, snipped
  • Ground pepper
  • Garlic powder
Directions:
  1. Mix the ground pork with finely cut cooked bean thread noodles, fish sauce, and chives.  Season with ground pepper and garlic powder.
  2. Stuff the squid bodies with the pork mixture.  Any leftover pork can be made into meatballs.
  3. Leave room at the end of each squid body so that you can close it up with a toothpick.
  4. Fill the large wok with 3 cups of water.  Set a steamer tray over the water, then the bamboo basket.
  5. Lay the stuffed squid into the steamer baskets, lined with banana leaves or lettuce.
  6. Cover with the large wok lid, heat over high heat, and steam for 10 - 15 minutes.


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