11 January 2024 · Consuming passions
By Roberta Muir
As Alan Davidson points out in The Oxford Companion to Food the name ‘cephalopod’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘head-footed’, which pretty well sums up the appearance of squid, cuttlefish and octopus doesn’t it? Davidson also suggests that this rather odd appearance accounts for the “widespread but diminishing reluctance to eat them”, a sentiment echoed by American food writer James Peterson in Cooking who notes that “A generation ago, many Americans wouldn’t get near a piece of squid, much less an octopus.”
The widespread reluctance, however is largely confined to the English-speaking world, as cephalopods have been popular in cuisines around the globe for millennia. Thankfully for we Anglophones, today these odd looking creatures rank much higher in our culinary stakes too. I love them for their versatility and texture, they’re among the only aquatic creatures that can be eaten braised and slow-cooked like meat, served raw, or quickly tossed on a hot grill or pan. In fact the only important rule when cooking these firm-fleshed creatures is to do it either very quickly over high heat or very slowly over low heat, as anything in between renders them tough.
The most active of all molluscs, cephalopods use a type of jet-propulsion that rivals fish for swimming speed and generally don’t have external shells; the exception is a rarely seen species called the nautilus, which looks a lot like the fossils of its ancient cousin the ammonite and has a beautiful shell.
This lack of a protective shell necessitates different defence strategies and, except for the nautilus, all cephalopods have a sac from which they squirt thick black ink that can congeal into a cephalopod-like shape to distract predators while the creature itself turns pale and jets away. With their ability to rapidly change colour they’ve turned camouflage into a fine art, admired by divers for their colourful displays and able to blend quickly into any surrounding to disguise themselves from hungry would-be attackers.
Cephalopods are abundant in the world’s oceans. They grow rapidly and have a short life cycle, which makes them a very sustainable species. For culinary purposes, they fall into three major groups: squid, cuttlefish, and octopus.
Scientists estimate there are about 500 species of squid worldwide, ranging in size from tiny creatures measuring just 2.5cm long to the infamous giant squid, the largest invertebrate on Earth, measuring up to 18m long and weighing 900kg. In 2002, a 15m-long specimen was washed up on Seven Mile Beach in eastern Tasmania, Australia, weighing 250kg. Squid have a long, cylindrical head or body (also called a mantle, hood or tube); eight shorter arms and two longer tentacles; and a thin, translucent, feather-shaped internal shell that support their body, called a quill, blade or gladius fin. This quill is made of chitin, the same substance as prawn shells and human fingernails.
‘Calamari’ is the Italian word for ‘squid’, but also sometimes refers to species of squid with long side fins running the full length of their bodies, such as Australian southern calamari. These long-finned calamari are often more tender than other squid, as shown off in this recipe for Millefeuille of Calamari and Salmon by Tasmanian chef Wayne Smith.
Cuttlefish are very similar to squid, but with a broader, thicker tube; shorter arms; and a thick, calcified internal shell – the ‘cuttlebone’ often given to pet birds to sharpen their beaks on. Cuttlefish are generally less expensive than squid and can be used interchangeably in almost any recipe.
Cuttlefish ink is used to blacken pasta, risotto, paella, sauces and even bread. Although referred to generically as ‘squid ink’, it is cuttlefish ink that’s most often used to colour foods black as the ink sacs of cuttlefish are larger than those of squid and some squid ink can impart a slightly bitter taste. The colour descriptor ‘sepia’ comes from the Italian word for cuttlefish because cuttlefish ink was used to create the rich reddish-brown pigment used in sepia drawings and paintings by medieval artists.
Octopuses (or octopi if you prefer) range across oceans, from shallow tidal pools to depths of over 3,000m. They differ from squid and cuttlefish in that – while all have eight arms – octopuses lack the two longer tentacles, side fins and internal shell. Their heads are also round instead of cylindrical and they are the only cephalopod that needs to be tenderised before cooking. This was traditionally done by fishermen beating them against the rocks and today fishmongers generally tumble them in small cement mixers; freezing helps tenderise them too.
Lacking fat, gristle and bone, and with their internal organs quiet easily removed, cephalopods are very simple to prepare and great value as there’s very little waste. So it’s worth buying whole fresh specimens and preparing them from scratch rather than frozen ones, of uncertain provenance and age, that have already been cleaned.
Fresh cephalopods are lustrous with brightly coloured skin and a pleasant fresh ocean aroma. Store them in the coldest part of the fridge for up to 3 days on a plate or in a container covered with a damp cloth then plastic wrap or a lid. Cephalopods are one of the few species that benefit from freezing as it helps to tenderise them, so they can be cleaned, sealed tightly and frozen for up to 6 months too.
When cleaning squid and cuttlefish hoods, it is worth taking the time to thoroughly remove the membranes on both sides. Responsible for chewy squid rings with the texture of elastic bands, these are easily removed by rubbing firmly with a clean damp cloth. On the other hand, some chefs including Janni Kyritsis do like to leave the skin on squid for the gorgeous deep red colour it develops when cooked, as in his recipe for Braised Stuffed Squid.
The firm flesh of cephalopods responds well to acidic marinades. In Colombia squid is soaked in lime juice for an hour or so before a 30 second blanch in boiling water, it’s then tossed with other ingredients to create a refreshing seafood cocktail. Sashimi-grade squid (ika) and cuttlefish (sumi-ika) are also popular toppings in Japan for sushi.
The thin hoods of small squid, especially calamari, and cuttlefish can be rendered tender by a quick toss in a hot pan.
Marinating and/or scoring them before grilling briefly also helps ensure a tender result. And nothing beats a flash-fry of tender squid in a classic salt and pepper coating.
While squid and cuttlefish can be cooked quickly on a hot barbecue, I’ve found that grilled octopus benefits from a two-step cooking process of braising then grilling. If you don’t mind a bit more bite in the end result, very small octopus are delicious covered with boiling water for a minute, then drained and marinated before quickly charring on a very hot grill.
Nothing’s more Greek than large octopus char-grilled and served with a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and dried oregano. To ensure a tender result, Tonia Buxton follows a two-step process of roasting it first for a couple of hours before charring it briefly on a hot grill.
In south-western France, the slow-cook then grill process is reversed for large cuttlefish, which are grilled over a low charcoal fire for half an hour before a quick toss in butter in a hot frying pan.
In Masu, Nic Watt poaches octopus tentacles tied together in muslin for half an hour, chills them until they’re very firm, then cuts the bundle into fine slices to present as a beautiful carpaccio.
Squid and cuttlefish hoods are ideal vessels for fillings of all kind, from classic Malaysian ketupat sotong filled with glutinous rice and poached in coconut milk to Ligurian flying squid, totani, stuffed with mortadella, porcini and stale bread.
Every visitor to Greece has seen octopus, stretched out in all their glory, drying in the sun on clothes lines. Dried octopus is also popular in Spain and North Africa and, in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Paula Wolfert gives a delicious Tunisian recipe for grilled dried octopus with tomatoes and green olives.
Being an accessible food to many cultures over many centuries, there are some time-proven combinations for cooking cephalopods. One of my favourites is the Venetian pairing of cuttlefish cooked in its own ink served with soft polenta.
Another is the classic Tuscan seafood soup/stew cacciucco Livornese, for which both cuttlefish and small octopus are essential along with a range of fish and shellfish.
Marinated boiled octopus is one of the most typical Greek mezze dishes. It’s simply boiled until tender, which can take from 20 minutes to an hour or more depending on the size, then soaked in lemon juice, olive oil, dried oregano and garlic. It doesn’t get more Greek than that!
Cephalopods are one of the few seafoods that can be braised like meat. This has proven very handy for the inventive Poles who love braised tripe but have found it hard to come by at times. They quickly discovered that squid makes an excellent substitute cooked in exactly the same way.
Roberta Muir is author of the Sydney Seafood School Cookbook (coming to ckbk soon) and co-author of A Lombardian Cookbook (with chef Alessandro Pavoni), A Sardinian Cookbook (with chef Giovanni Pilu) and Wild Weed Pie (with chef Janni Kyritsis), all of which are on ckbk. She managed Australia’s largest recreational cooking school, Sydney Seafood School at Sydney Fish Market, from 1997-2021.