ANNUAL CALAMARI FESTIVAL
More Than A Recipe
A Culinary Memoir from a Happy Family Life
I assure you that what is to follow is an authentic, perfectly legitimate account of how we used to live back in the 1940’s and early 50’s when most of the family still lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The recipe for calamari, as Aunt Weesie made it, takes a lot of work, and it may be hard today to find fresh squid [the gutted, frozen, processed "rings" or denuded “carcasses” you may find at the supermarket have no flavor whatsoever -- take it from me], but anyway if done right, this recipe is a gourmet treat extraordinaire, IF you like the taste of MARINE life, that is. If you don’t, you really don’t belong in our family.
Back in those magical days of my childhood our Aunt Weesie staged an annual culinary ritual –– an event we frankly enjoyed more than Christmas. It centered on individual calamari (about 50 of varying lengths), each one gutted, skinned, debeaked, and thoroughly rinsed. The tentacles were reserved and set in a bowl of icy cold salted water along with the calamari "shells." [We used to joke about the shells looking just like torpedoes, which they certainly did.]
After each little squid and set of tentacles had been prepared thusly, they were taken out, patted dry on clean dish towelling, then stuffed with a mixture of bread, egg, grated Romano cheese, finely minced fresh parsley, the merest hint of puréed garlic, salt and fresh ground pepper. Each open end was then stitched shut with white thread to prevent the stuffing from escaping during the cooking, then lightly sautéed in imported olive oil for 2 or 3 minutes –– no more.
After the calamari had been sealed by the sautéeing process, the stitches were carefully removed.
|Raw material from the fishmonger
MEANWHILE, we had, of course, prepared in advance an enormous quantity of homemade marinara sauce using a peck of fresh Italian plum tomatoes.
First the bottom of the sauce pot was covered lightly in olive oil, then six or eight cloves of fresh garlic fully peeled and cut into coarse chunks were sautéed until they turned golden brown.
The garlic was then REMOVED on a slotted spoon and discarded. [This is important. Overcooked or undercooked garlic is unpleasant to say the least. BURNED garlic is absolute HELL.]
Salt and Pepper were added to taste along with a tablespoon or two of chopped fresh basil, and maybe a teaspoon of sugar, but only if the tomatoes seemed too tart, and then the tomatoes, themselves, each cut into several pieces to ease cooking time.
All this was simmered –– very gently –– for at least an hour and half, then cooled, and put in batches through a FOLEY MILL, a then-state-of-the-art device that made it possible to strain out all the seeds and skins without the bother of having to push the mixture through a sieve by hand using the back of a wooden spoon.
I neglected to tell you cooking calamari this way is a three-day affair. The marinara sauce, itself, could be prepared well in advance, of course, but the process of cleaning, stuffing, and sautéeing the squid took hours, and was usually done the day before the family festival was to take place.
The rest is easy, but still time-consuming:
The marinara sauce was reheated to the simmering point, but NOT BOILED, the calamari were then placed in the sauce along with their tentacles, covered loosely, and simmered for about 2 hours frequently stirred, of course at ten or fifteen minute intervals.
Meanwhile, Cousin Eddie and his wife Geraldine, or Uncle Bill and Auntie Anne always brought fresh loaves of crusty Italian bread and assorted pastries from a wonderful Old World Italian bakeshop on New York's lower east side, and we at home prepared a big salad with fresh greens that often included Belgian endive, baby spinach leaves, radicchio, a minced scallion or two, and possibly some arrugala along with whatever lettuce looked most appetizing at the greengrocer's at the time. This was dressed with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, pureed garlic, chopped basil, a tiny bit of Dijon mustard and a few anchovies mashed up and liquefied.
After the company arrived, a big pot of salted water was put to the boil, the linguine was cooked al dente, the calamari were removed from the gently simmering sauce one by one and placed on a platter, the sauce was ladled over individual servings of linguine. Extra sauce was brought to the table in a large gravy boat accompanied by a silver ladle.
Everyone sat down, the salad was served, then the piece de resistance was presented along with a basket of crusty, freshly baked Italian bread.
The grown ups drank red wine, the kids were given lemonade prepared by Grandpa using his own secret method [He never did tell anyone how he did it, but it was very special].
Later on espresso, usually made by Uncle Bill in the beautifully crafted copper pot brought over from Italy so many years before, was served with the assorted pastries.
Afterward, we'd all gather around the piano and sing familiar songs –– or Uncle Joe, who among other things had accompanied Vaudeville acts at the Palace, –– would bring his ukelele and accompany Aunt Weesie as they went through their clownish antics complete with fake mustaches and paper Derbies which always left us all in stitches.
And then toward evening, if the weather was fine, we all went out and took a nice long walk to look at The Narrows, watch the sunset and see the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island which was just visible from where we stood.
After we got back to the apartment, everyone helped Aunt Weesie put the food away, though there were scarcely ever any leftovers, and do the dishes. All parted reluctantly, but went home contented eagerly looking forward to the next family get together.
And I can tell you this with absolute certainty:
HEAVEN COULD HAVE NO GREATER REWARD OR GLORIOUS DELIGHT IN STORE FOR ME THAN THIS WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE DINING WITH FAMILY ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON.
These memories become increasingly precious with each passing year. I wish everyone had had the good fortune to have been blest with a family as wonderful as mine was then.
In gratitude and loving memory,