Kraken Wise: Squid Rocks

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No question about it: Squid and octopus are in. On a whirlwind visit to New York late last year, Gut Check partook of octopus dishes at four different restaurants on four consecutive nights. Last week, right here in blogland, our featured chef of the week Grace Dinsmoor of Modesto shared her recipe for pulpo a la gallega.

Last week we bought a new book called Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams, and this morning we saw a television commercial that just might have rocked our personal boat right on past the tipping point:

Are we picking up what this bazillion-dollar ad campaign is putting down?

If you drink the Kraken Black Spiced Rum, a humongous tentacled sea creature will ooze up to your barstool and the last word out of your rum-sticky mouth will be "AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!" Strange way to market a product you want people to drink, or maybe that's just us.

Cephalopodomania is just dandy as far as Gut Check is concerned, though we'll pass on the Kraken-Coke and the Kraken depth charge, et al. Of course, we're no fool; we've read enough about our oceans and the creatures therein to realize that a bounty of squid in particular constitutes a sort of reverse canary-in-a-coal-mine, in that as more and more of our planet's fishier fish fall prey to fishier-fish overfishing, species farther down the food chain (like squid) will flourish. Some say that if we don't mend our fishin' ways, soon there'll be nothing to eat but jellyfish.

As glass-half-empty a gourmand as Gut Check is, we're choosing to view this particular glass, at this particular time, as half full -- though we'd prefer that it hold something other than sweet spiced rum.

So here's a squid recipe to try this weekend. If the storms hold off around dinnertime, make it on the grill... Published in 1989, Nicole Routhier's The Foods of Vietnam was one of the first (if not the first Vietnamese cookbook geared toward demystifying for Westerners the Southeast Asian nation's awesome cuisine. More than two decades later, it is well worth seeking out and the following recipe is Exhibit A.

Stuffed Squid (Muc Nhoi)

6 large dried Chinese mushrooms 1 ounce cellophane (bean thread) noodles 8 young squid (about 1 pound total weight) 12 ounces ground pork 3 shallots, chopped 3 large garlic cloves, chopped 1 tablespoon nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon sugar Freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Soak the mushrooms in hot water and the cellophane noodles in warm water for 30 minutes. Drain. Remove and discard the mushroom stems. Coarsely chop the mushroom caps and noodles.

Pat dry the squid body sections, inside and out, and set aside. Mince the tentacles.

In a large bowl, combine the minced tentacles, mushrooms, noodles, pork, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, salt, sugar and black pepper to taste. Mix well with your hands.

Stuff the mixture into the squid mantles, packing firmly so as to leave no air pockets and stuffing the squid two-thirds full. Sew the openings shut with a coarse needle and heavy thread.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. When the oil is hot, add the stuffed squid and cook for about 5 minutes, turning several times to coat with the oil. Using a fork, pierce each squid body all over to release the water. Be careful, as the water can cause the oil to splatter. Continue cooking the squid for 10 minutes more, turning occasionally, until nicely browned on all sides. (If using larger squid, cook 5 minutes longer.)

Remove the threads. Slice each squid into 1/4-inch rounds. Serve with rice and nuoc cham.

Serves 4

Allow Gut Check to make a few suggestions.

1. Feel free to substitute fresh shiitake mushrooms for dried Chinese black mushrooms.

2. If you don't want to use meat, up your squid order to 2 pounds and ask the person behind the seafood counter to aim for a 2:1 ratio of tentacles to bodies. When you're combining ingredients, mix in a little panko to soak up the extra moisture.

3. A couple of well-placed wooden toothpicks are less involved than a needle and thread.

4. Instead of cooking the squid in a pan on the stovetop, brush them with oil and cook them on an outdoor grill.

5. Don't bother cutting them into rounds before serving.

Finally, about that nuoc cham. Don't confuse it with nuoc mam. The latter is Vietnamese fish sauce, available at any Asian market. The former is a common and delicious clear dipping sauce based on nuoc mam. It's not hard to make; here's a recipe from the fine folks at Fine Cooking.

P.S.: Gut Check's St. Clair County bureau chief Robin Wheeler reminds us that your cephalopods like their Irish whiskey too!

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