Our annual survey of seafood in Southeast Louisiana this year counts down the 33 best seafood species enjoyed in our restaurants, seafood markets, and homes. For the full survey so far, click here.
27: Squid (Calamari)
Squid come in all sizes, but the most familiar of them are the small ones from the Gulf that restaurants (particularly Italian ones) serve under the name calamari. In the most familiar squid dish, the cephalopods are coated with flour or cornmeal, deep-fried, then served with some kind of tomato-based sauce–either a cocktail sauce or spaghetti sauce, depending on the place.
No matter where you find fried calamari, you can bet on this: the chef and the regular customers will claim–loudly–that these are the best in the city. Maybe the world.
But squid are less common in restaurants than they once were. And not as good, either. This seems to have happened at the time of hurricane Katrina. The storm killed the city’s best fryer of squid–La Riviera in Metairie. No other restaurant has taken its place, although Sandro’s (Metairie: 6601 Veterans Blvd. 504-888-7784) is close to equalling La Riviera’s squid.
A few matters separate good squid from not-so-good squid. The first is how well they’ve been cleaned. Squid need to have the “pen” (a stiff sliver of cartilage), the ink sacs, and the little beak (one of which bit me once!) removed. Some squids are stuffed with eggs, but those shouldn’t be cleaned out. They’re a rare treat, one I haven’t had in many years.
Lightness is crucial in frying squid, which can be tough when overcooked. (The texture is somewhat chewy to begin with.) I like to get not only the rings (the body cut crosswise) but the tentacles (which a friend once aptly described as “fried spiders”).
Squid don’t have to be fried, though. They can be sauteed in olive oil wirth garlic and herbs. They’re excellent poached, then marinated in olive oil and herbs to make a cold antipasto. A wide range of great dishes combine squid with rice or pasta. Seafood risotto and cioppino are wonderful. Best of all are dishes using squid ink in the sauce. You see this everywhere in the Mediterranean, particularly in Spain and Italy.
Unacceptable Alternative: Big squid. Larger squid (and they can get so large that they can actually battle a sperm whale to the death) have been turning up on more local menus. They don’t look like squid, because large sections of the body wall are cut into rectangles. They are most commonly boiled, then scored (so you can chew them) in sushi bars. Sometimes this kind of squid is grilled. I find it tough and flavorless. I always check to make sure that’s not what’s coming under the calamari brand. That isn’t the local squid, anyway.