There is a reluctance to wrap our minds around the connection between living creature and edible substance. A desire not to associate this meal with that animal.
This is the point at which many decide to become vegetarian. To escape this ethical dilemma of eating what we can identify with. (Of course, there are myriad reasons people make this choice. And many arguments, economical, ethical, environmental and political, to support it. Not my point here).
For the rest of us, this dilemma is overcome, mostly, when the animal arrives in a completely unidentifiable form. To all but the trained veterinary scientist there is little resemblance between steak and cow, bacon and pig, fillet and fish.
I think this is part of a wider disconnection between food production and food consumption. This disconnection, sensationalised by reporting of surveys such as “29% of Britains think oats grow on trees and 26% think bacon comes from sheep”*, is part and parcel of a post-industrial largely urban population well supplied by fast food franchises and supermarket chains. I think this disconnection leads in all kinds of directions – eating poorer quality food (as we no longer know what food is supposed to look and taste like, and when it is in season), having a more limited diet (due to foods being farmed en mass and cultivated for easy transportation and storage), eating less nutritional food (as more food is prepared, processed and packaged) and eating more wastefully (in not consuming the whole of something, be it the whole cow or the whole beetroot, bulb and leaves). We are poorer, in every sense, for this change in consumption.
There is another aspect to this (as least as far as I am concerned, but I suspect for others as well): lack of skill. Simple kitchen butchery is a skill that many modern cooks do not have. Where would we learn it? Most butchers themselves receive carcasses already stripped, and no longer even stock some cuts or parts of an animal (brawn, anyone?). They don’t supply it, we don’t demand it. Arguably, this is an immediate consequence of a systemic disconnection between where our food comes from and our home kitchens.
Personally, I like meat cooked on the bone (it tastes better), I am fascinated (as well, I admit, a little repulsed) by the process by which food goes from creature to cuisine. But I am also woefully clumsy, and the opportunities to improve are not easy to come by. Even when I roast a whole chicken perfectly, I tend to hack in an undisciplined manner, completely destroying for the plate what should be moist and sweet on the palate.
In the last three months, I have filleted whole fish for the first time. Shucked an oyster. Jointed a chicken. Watched a butcher strip a lamb carcass. I am making an effort – practicing and confronting my inhibitions.
There is also another reason that I struggle with animal-to-table cooking, one that I suspect is unique to me alone. And one that is unique to particular animal. Not squeamishness. Not incompetence. Fear of the beast itself.
Cephalopod are freaky, freaky things.
No, the fear is more ordinary.
I have early memories of my eldest aunt looking after my brother and me when we were around 9 and 7.**
She had several hoods of calamari, cleaned and opened out. She had cut them into smaller rectangular pieces, about an inch wide and two inches long, and scored a cross-hatch pattern on the outer side. These she threw into a wok sizzling with olive oil. To my horror and slight fascination, the pieces sprang up and curled around, as if possessed and still alive. They were cooked in a flash and tossed onto a plate, sprinkled with a little salt and lemon. My brother wouldn’t touch them. I’m not sure I was much braver.***
Until then, I think my only experience of calamari was frozen and then deep fried calamari rings at the local fish and chips shop. This neither looked nor tasted like anything other than breadcrumbs, oil and salt.
Much later I had a flatmate who desperately wanted to have an octopus in a tank as a pet. The key selling point for him was a rumour he’d heard that an octopus can use its hood to create a bubble of water around its gills, lift off the lid of a tank and then roam around the house. Trust me when I say this was a key factor in my most emphatic refusal to entertain the idea.****
Not long after this aborted ‘should we get a pet octopus’ episode, we cooked an octopus (actually, only two tentacles, owing to slight disagreement between me and the fishmonger, in which I attempted to buy a whole octopus, and he refused to sell me more than two tentacles. He reckoned we would not eat the whole thing, and so limited my supply), something we certainly could never had done had we obtained one as a pet. The fact that the suckers of the severed arms suctioned onto my plastic cutting board and lifted it off the bench when I tried to put the damn things into a saucepan did nothing to cause me to reconsider my attitude of fear and suspicion.
I have a troubled history when it comes to cephalopodia.
In the last year, though, I have braved the preparation of whole fresh squid, struggling with the exploding ink sacks and slimy skin and tentacles and cartilage removal. Overcoming the guilt and revulsion of the big glassy eyes just staring at me. Time consuming, but in a very childish way: immensely fun.
To my surprise, it’s not all that difficult –just super, super messy. Given that the first step is: gently pull off head, taking care not to break the ink sack that comes away with the internal organs (you get the picture); this not for the squeamish. Next steps – insert fingers and scrap out remaining internal organs, slip fingers under thin skin and pull away, and then pull off wings, it is more like an episode of Dexter than an experience in cooking.
** It’s worth noting she reminded me of David Bowie a la Labrynth (ie, slightly scary and Golbin-King-esque).
*** My mum tells a story of this same aunt, who, after a rather wild adolescence (ie, she secretly quit secretarial school and enrolled in art classes), toured the world, finding work as a sketch artist on an archaeological dig in Macedonia. Setting aside all the other extraordinary stories from her travels, she returned in the early sixties, and, after much coaxing, convinced their father that the calamari he caught, froze and used for bait when fishing was, in fact, edible. Not only edible, but delicious. Clearly, she has form when it comes to freaky squid-cooking antics.
**** The same flatmate also had this great idea that we could genetically engineer miniature elephants and ibex and giraffe and then turn our balcony into a miniature savannah for our ginger cat, AKA ‘the tiger’, to roam in. He is a brilliant thinker whose time will come.
This is a little fiddly, but well worth the effort. For dinner, allow 1 – 2 small calamari per person.
3-4 calamari (approximately ½ kg – the smaller the calamari, the more tender they will be)
3/4 cup risotto rice (I use aborio - note that it is important to use a risotto rice, and not a long grain rice like jasmine)
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup frozen peas
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 onion, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
Prepare the calamari by removing the head, tentacles, skin and wings (see above) – and rinse the hoods. I finely chop the tentacles and wings and add to the risotto. Set aside.
For the risotto stuffing – bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. In another large heavy bottomed saucepan, sauté the onion and fennel in oil until translucent. Add the rice, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook for a minute or so, until the rice is coated. Add the white wine, stirring until absorbed. Add a small amount (about ¼ cup or a ladle full) of warmed water (you could use fish or vegetable stock, I tend not to bother) and stir. The idea with risotto is to keep the rice constantly moving, to loosen the starch in the rice – this is what makes risotto sticky and creamy. Continue to stir and add more water as the liquid evaporates until the rice is cooked (roughly between 15 and 20 minutes). Toss in the peas, parsley, lemon rind and juice (and chopped squid wings and tentacles, if you like). Season to taste.
Allow to cool a little (it needs to be cool enough to handle).
Taking a squid hood in one hand, stuff the rice mixture into the hood until the hood is firm. Use a toothpick to secure the opening.