Few people realize that agile squid are, in fact, shell-less mollusks and distant cousins of mussels, scallops, and clams.
But squid is rarely prepared so that it tastes as delicate and mouthwatering as fresh steamers or pan-seared scallops. In most restaurants, and, I'm sad to say, my own kitchen, it's often rubbery and nearly tasteless, a textured complement to whatever else it was cooked with. Many eateries simply toss it in the deep-fryer and let salt, oil, and tartar sauce take over from there.
But here on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, squid finally gets its due.
From the cobbled streets of Kotor to the snowcapped mountains of Slovenia, even the lowliest bistro serves a calamari dish that's delicate, tasty, and straightforward. The people of Yugoslavia disagree about a lot of things, but when it comes to squid they're all on the same page: Cook it quickly, they say, with olive oil garlic, and basil and serve it with wedges of lemon.
For nearly two decades, restaurateur Leo Licof has been serving traditional- style calamari to diners at Okarina in Bled, Slovenia, long regarded as one of the best restaurants in the region.
"It's simple to prepare, but is praised by our guests," says Mr. Licof, who learned the technique decades ago while working on the island of Hvar on Croatia's Dalmatian coast.
The people of Hvar and other parts of the eastern Adriatic honed their squid recipes out of necessity.
These days, tourism draws hordes of visitors to the Croatian and Montenegrin coasts, where picturesque Venetian-style towns perch between stunning mountains and bright shining sea. But 50 years ago, there was little tourism, and the people of Dalmatia and the Bay of Kotor were extremely poor.
"It was a starving place, worse than Ireland," says Licof, recalling the stories told to him by old-timers in the early 1970s. "Peasants often had no boats and were dependent on fish that came close to shore like calamari."
You can usually catch cleaned squid at supermarket fish counters. This saves the inconvenience of cleaning them. But if not, here's how it's done: (1) Remove the innards and plastic-like quill from each body. (2) Cut the tentacles just beneath the eye and, if you find a hard beak attached, remove it. (3) Rinse and retain the tentacles and now-hollow body piece and discard the rest.
Smaller squid are more tender, so for this recipe, select ones whose rocket-shaped body section is about two inches long. Some swear by frozen squid because freezing tenderizes it, but Licof prefers fresh.
Either way, prepare by cutting the body in half, lengthwise, and flattening the resulting pieces. The tentacles of a small squid can be cooked as one mop-like piece.
The calamari should be cooked in olive oil in a hot saucepan or wok. "Too much liquid makes calamari rubbery," Licof warns. "They have enough water in and of themselves, so don't add any liquid other than the oil."
After just a couple minutes, any additional ingredients are added. The traditional recipe calls for chopped garlic and basil, but Licof adds soy sauce and salt to bring out the taste. After waiting a few moments to let the garlic turn slightly golden, the dish is served with lemon and parsley.
Of course, the Adriatic region has produced many alternative recipes. On Hvar, islanders who don't want to deal with the bother of cleaning simply bake the entire mollusk and sort it out on the plate. At Venice's Trattoria da Remigio, one of the city's better seafood eateries, they cook squid uncleaned in its own ink, which gives it a distinctive black color and a strong sealike flavor.
Larger squid tend to be tough when pan-fried, so Licof recommends baking and stuffing the cleaned bodies with diced tentacles, vegetables, and prosciutto. Really large squid can be softened by stewing them in tomato sauce or fish broth. The flesh will toughen at first, but after a half-hour or so will become tender.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh squid, cleaned
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 to 8 basil leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt to taste
Handful of chopped parsley
Heat olive oil in a wok or saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add squid.
Cook 5 to 7 minutes, stirring periodically, then add the garlic, basil, soy sauce, and salt. Cook for a few moments, allowing garlic to brown slightly. Put on plates, and serve with lemon wedges and parsley. At the table, add a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil.
Serves 2 as a main course; 4 as an appetizer.