When I first got married, I was fascinated by the way my mother in law expertly cleaned calamari. Nearly five years on, nothing has changed. Where Ma may use a toothbrush to painstakingly clean fish for her family, she often uses a knitting needle to ensure the inside of the calamari tube is immaculately clean. Having grown up on a Greek island, her skill in cooking all types of seafood and her knowledge of how it should be treated and used is truly impressive. Ma's "salty" island blood and passion for seafood has been passed on to her children - certainly my Mr K, so it was early in my marriage that I got to grips with cleaning calamari and octopus - and selecting it at the market.
In the same way that I am fascinated by Ma's skill, I am equally fascinated at how many different types of molluscs there are - particularly when it comes to squid, calamari and cuttlefish. Frustratingly, some fishmongers and certainly many restaurants just use one label for them all - squid. When it comes to Greek cooking - and certainly the discerning preferences of my seafood loving family - squid (called thrapsalo in Greek) and cuttlefish (called soupia in Greek) are very, very rarely (if ever) used. At a pinch, cuttlefish may be used to flavour a Lenten broth - or cooked with plenty of wine and other strong flavours, to match its powerful aroma.
In the Greek kitchen - calamari, with its tender flesh, is king - be it lightly flash fried or stuffed using a variety of herbs and rice. Not only is calamari the preferred choice of mollusc for Greek cooking - it is also a choice you can feel comfortable about. Most Australian calamari is not over fished and in particular, according to the "Good Fish Bad Fish" website southern calamari from Victoria is accredited as sustainable. Thankfully, my fishmonger is pretty spot on with the labels and she only has Australian calamari - no imported stuff here! It is fairly easy to distinguish between calamari and it's squid/cuttlefish friends. Calamari will normally have a pink-purplish skin, where as squid and cuttlefish usually have a greyish-black skin. My years of interrogation of the fishmonger (and not only in terms of calamari) has resulted in a great relationship - something you don't get at a big supermarket.
This dish is one of Mr K's favourites - Ma will often call on a weekday to let us know to pick it up on the way home. After a long day in the office, it such a treat to enjoy - along with a small glass of wine and a little plate of olives, the flavours of this dish transport you to a beach side taverna. Along way from the hustle and bustle of a Sydney commute. Ma is really the best mother in law a girl could ask for! In some Greek recipes for stuffed calamari, the stuffed tubes are often simmered in a fresh tomato sauce. While delicious, it make this a bit more of a heavier meal - and in some ways it obscures the fresh flavour of the calamari. Once baked, this version is perfect with a squeeze of lemon for freshness and a little bit of acidity. The addition of Greek cheese in the stuffing mix is not one that Ma would normally use - but it comes at the request of my seafood connoisseur Mr K.
Ma's kalamari yemista: calamari stuffed with leeks, currants and pine nuts (καλαμαράκια γεμιστά)
12 small calamari (no squid please!)
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 leek, white part only, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
12 tablespoons of white long grain rice
2 tablespoons of dried currants (I like to use Zakyinthian currants - for the family connection)
2 tablespoons of pine nuts, toasted
1 tablespoon of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of selino, finely chopped (this is wild celery - you could use the leafy tops of fresh celery as a substitute - or just use an extra tablespoon of parsley).
1/4 cup grated Greek kefalograveria cheese
1/2 cup of fish stock or water
Good Greek olive oil
1. Add rice to a large bowl and cover with warm water and a pinch of salt. Leave to soak for around 30 minutes. Then drain and rinse thoroughly.
2. Clean the calamari, reserving the tentacles and wings. Cut half of the tentacles and wings into small pieces.
3. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan. Cook the onion, leek and garlic until soft. Remove from the heat and add rice and stir to coat in the oil and onion/leek/garlic pieces. Add the chopped tentacles and wings, currants, pine nuts, chopped herbs and cheese. Spoon rounded tablespoons of the mixture into the calamari tubes - leaving about a 1/2 inch gap from the top. Secure with toothpicks.
4. Preheat oven to 180C.
5. Heat a little oil in a clean fry pan or grill pan and cook squid in batches until browned lightly. Transfer the calamari to an oiled baking dish and add the 1/2 cup of fish stock or water. Cover the tray with foil and bake cover for around 30-45 minutes until rice is cooked though and the calamari is opaque and tender.
5. Serve alongside some olives and bread. I recommend a glass of Kefalonian Robola wine as well - the smoky, mineral hints and lemon aftertaste compliment the calamari perfectly.