While woody Chilean strawberries continue to mock the seasons from their shelves in large chain grocery stores, more and more farmers are tilling local soil. More and more farmers’ markets are setting up on town greens and in parking lots allowing us to purchase local, seasonal food. Our children know better when and how strawberries grow. The principle of eating from the calendar, eating seasonal local foods, has thankfully, at least in some communities, survived big supermarket’s grip.
Not so much for fish.
Rarely anymore does a fish market or the fish counter of a grocery store reflect what is seasonal and local. Most fish markets fill their cases with haddock, cod, Chilean sea bass, tuna, swordfish, and some shrimp and oysters all year long. Almost never do we feel either the absence of a fish out of season or the arrival of a fish in season because there is always Norway, Iceland, and Southeast Asia to fill the gaps. The local food movement is leagues ahead of the fish local movement, but the same principles apply.
Enough preaching. Here is a great local catch we should all be eating right now!
Late April – early May is squid season, as regular as lilacs. New England fishermen say that when the buds pop out on the trees the squid “come in,” and all the fish follow. Longfin Inshore Squid, or Doryteuthis pealeii, also known as Loligo pealeii, spend their winters in deeper waters along the edge of the Continental Shelf. Their arrival inshore – they come to spawn – marks the start of spring for those living close to the Nantucket Sound waters. For the fishermen, the squid are like the gunshot in the air declaring the start of the year’s fishing season.
Jared Auerbach, CEO and owner of Red’s Best Fish Distributors, said that all the Cape Cod fishermen he dealt with are landing squid right now. If they aren’t landing squid they are landing fluke with bellies and mouths full of squid.
“This is a sweet time; everything is coming in from off shore or coming North. The water temperatures are up. The boats area all in Nantucket Sound, because the squid have arrived there,” and with them everything else.
All winter the fishing in Nantucket Sound has been punctual but not thrilling. The squid return every year to these waters to spawn, and every year the fish follow.
“From late April, early May to December we are shining!” Auerbach grins. And it’s dramatic:
“The squid light up and change colors in the water,” Auerbach said, “when they attack they are vicious! They come on deck and squirt you with ink, and I mean, they attack!”
After squid spawn, they return to deeper waters, retreating from the paths of rapacious striped bass and bluefish; almost all New England fish consider squid a favorite meal. People say the best tasting squid are the ones in Nantucket Sound and particularly off Point Judith, R.I., because they’ve been feeding on fish that have been eating blue-green algae, which sweetens everything.
The best testament to squid deliciousness comes from the chef/owner of the Italian restaurant Erbaluce in the Back Bay, Charles Draghi. Draghi, who has a classical chef’s training, still approaches cuisine with the Old World Italian ways of his Peidmontese relatives; he sources produce almost exclusively from local farms and farmers markets, and calls his fishermen friends each morning to ask what they’re catching.
At a recent Seafood Throwdown Draghi seared local squid rings and tentacles in a hot pan, and then tossed them in a black olive, saffron and fresh herb sauce. Praising the flavor therein, Draghi said, “you know squid are delicious because they are the absolute favorite food of striped bass, and stripers have their choice of anything in the sea!”
My squid came from the FV Rimrack out of Portsmouth, NH. Fisherwoman Amanda Parks met me in a Portsmouth parking lot with 60 pounds of freshly caught squid destined for a bunch of happy Cape Ann kitchens. Parks was as happy about the squid season as Auerbach, and had already created a bunch of squid recipes right on the boat.
The recipe below is meant to be a super-quick way to tuck calamari into a dish that everyone loves: tacos. The mild, sweet taste of calamari welcomes the strong flavors of chilis and lime. Add some cool slaw and a toasted corn tortilla and this is an easy, light, and unusual vehicle for this great local seafood.
Chili Lime Calamari Tacos
2 pounds cleaned squid, bodies cut into 3/4” widths and tentacles
2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for cooking the squid)
3 tablespoons minced garlic zest from
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or kosher)
4 cups shredded cabbage (a mix of purple and green is ideal)
1 cup cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon diced jalapeno
juice from 3 limes (about 3 tablespoons)
16 small corn tortillas
1 medium avocado, halved and cut into thin slices
sea salt more
chili powder for dusting
- In a large bowl toss together squid, olive oil, garlic, lime zest, red pepper flakes, chili powder, cayenne, and sea salt. Let sit for at least 15 minutes, but no more than 1 hour.
- In a separate large bowl toss together the cabbage, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime juice. Let sit for at least 15 minutes, or up to an hour.
- When ready to prepare the tacos, begin warming the tortillas: Preheat oven to “warm” or lowest temperature. Lay out a clean dish towel in which to wrap the heated tortillas. Set out a bowl of water.
- Heat a large skillet to medium high. Add a shimmer of olive oil.
- Dip each tortilla in the water and then immediately into the hot pan. Allow them to get hot, and brown, and then turn over. Let cook 1 minute, and then remove to the dish towel.
- Wrap them, place them in the oven, and continue with the rest. Keep warm until the squid is ready.
- To cook the squid, heat a pan that will hold them in a single layer, or use two pans, to high heat. Pour a shimmer of olive oil in the pan, and heat to high. Add the squid in one layer, and do not touch! Let the squid sit in the pan on high heat for about 1 1/2 minutes. Once they squid has solid brown marks, move them gently in the pan, turning to brown the other sides.
- Cook like this for 3-5 minutes, but no more, until the squid are sort of scorched in places, cooked through, but not tough. The garlic may scorch in the pan by the end, but just leave that there. It has done its job of seasoning the squid.
- To assemble the taco, lay out a tortilla, top with a scoop of cole slaw, and then 4-5 pieces of squid. Lay a slice of avocado over the squid, and dust with salt and chili powder. Serve immediately.