It’s gonna be a bright 88 degrees fahrenheit in the nation’s capital next week. Whatever the hell the calendar says, summertime is upon us. There is no force in all the universe that can take it back, now that it has been freely given. No backsies on this one, nature.
You know what to do: haul out the grill; vacuum the spiderwebs out of its bowels; scrub the alarming orange coating of rust off the grate, along with the terrifying semi-charred remnants of 2016's many steaks and pork chops. Reminders, they are, of the hot and happy victuals of summer, when everything comes most fully to life so that it can be cut down, chopped up, thrown over a hot fire, and eaten with a squeeze of citrus.
There will be plenty of time for steaks and chops and burgers and dogs. Why not ring in the season with something you will be less inclined to eat when you are less enthusiastic about the rituals of summer? Why not use the dawning of the happy part of the year to look past the reliable terrestrial animals, and the familiar slabs and morsels of the seafood counter, for something ever so slightly off the beaten path? Why not, say, grill up a nightmare?
Here I am referring to squid, what we conveniently refer to as “calamari,” so as to deflect our attention from the fact that we are eating a small version of the horrifying sea monsters that battles actual whales in the inky black depths of the world’s oceans. Woe unto the first man who was hungry enough to rip one of these writhing miscreations from the waves and bring it anywhere near his face. Probably he was stuck on a raft, out of sight of land, and had already eaten all his comrades. Poor devil. You wonder who ate who in that fateful moment.
But what a meal! Squid, it turns out, is pretty damn good. Who hasn’t enjoyed the familiar crunchy rings of a good fried calamari. That’s a fairly approachable way of dealing with squid—cut it up, clean it, bread it, and fry it so that it looks like Burger King onion rings. Generally speaking, squid becomes more palatable the less the preparation looks like, you know, squid. So grilling squid will be a bit of a challenge! It’s going to look quite a bit more like squid, at the end, than does Olive Garden’s calamari. But it’s gonna be really delicious, and you will enjoy it, and be glad to have made it yourself. Let’s get going.
Here’s what you’ll need: some squid; some oil; some charcoal; your shitty charcoal grill; a lemon or two; some salt; some parsley.
Squid: It’s good! There are at least three really good ways of eating squid: breaded and fried, as in your standard calamari appetizer; raw and lightly scored, as sushi; and grilled over a really goddamn hot charcoal fire. These preparations aren’t as different as they might seem—the idea with both frying and grilling (in this case) is to expose the squid to a lot of heat very quickly, so that it spends as little time as possible being cooked. Grilled squid is very much not raw squid, but it’s cooked so quickly anyone not paying close attention will doubt whether you had time to cook it at all. Don’t bullshit me, pal—I ain’t down with no raw cephalopod.
These lightning-quick applications of heat are popular because squid can be a bit of a pain in the ass to cook. If you cook it fast and hot, it will be delicious and tender, with just a little bouncy crunch to it. If you cook it low and slow, it will eventually make its way back to lovely tenderness, without even the little bouncy crunch. But anything in between—and I mean anything at all, even a single minute of extra time on the grill while you zone out thinking about skateboarding doggos—will result in stiff, unyielding squid with the texture of hard rubber. Needless to say, this will spoil your feelings about the culinary use of tentacled abominations from the briny deep, and also probably skateboarding pooches.
So the key here is gonna be making a roaring hot fire, so that you can slap your squid parts down on the grill and have them cooked and off—with grill marks and rust-colored caramelization and everything—in two minutes.
I’m warning you, though, that building a blazing hot charcoal fire in your shitty charcoal grill for just two friggin’ minutes of actual cooking is gonna make you feel silly and wasteful. You’ll be staring out your window and grimly shaking your head for the next hour, knowing there’s still enough heat on that damn grill to work through several batches of chicken thighs. I dunno what to tell you, man—your fire will never be hotter than it is in those early stages, after you spread out the glowing coals and before they’ve had much of a chance to burn away, so you can’t exactly start with burgers or lacquered chicken parts and get around to the flash-grilling of squid parts towards the end. The best you can do is knock out the squid parts, eat the squid while it’s still piping hot and screamingly fresh, and then maybe lay whatever else over the waning fire and count on having some leftovers that, I dunno, have grill marks? Whatever you do with the fire after the squid, the fire’s hottest phase will need to be spent with squid over it.
Now that we’ve worked that out, you’re gonna need to get some squid. At all my local seafood counters and at the local wharf, squid is sold one way: the mantles, trimmed and cleaned, are sold in one pile, and the tentacles are sold in another pile. Look, man—cephalopods are gross. I am very sorry about this. When a squid is alive and swimming around in the ocean, the beast’s mantle is packed full of internal organs and ink sacs and other horrifying peculiarities, and the tentacles are, unbelievably, part of the squid’s head. Squids have fucking beaks. Fish mongers do their best to render these nightmare creatures into remotely comprehensible foodstuffs, but you’re still gonna be purchasing and handling and cooking and eating slimy handfuls of pale, cartilaginous, be-suckered sea monsters, even after all the truly terrifying stuff has been sliced away and, I dunno, fed to the Nightbreed. Thankfully, the gnarly cast-off stuff they don’t sell you includes all the internal organs and anything that reasonably passes for a “head” on these blasphemous creatures: they eyes and beak and let’s just move on from here without another word on the matter.
After you’ve eaten squid a few different ways and have mostly gotten over your initial revulsion, the two commonly consumed parts of cephalopods don’t any longer seem all that especially weird. The mantle works out to be just a very small tube-sock made out of tasty seafood. The tentacles certainly look weird, but they are much tastier than the mantle, and they’re more tender, and hot cooking gives them a really excellent brittle crunch on their outermost tapered ends. Is this grossing you out? I’ve said too much, haven’t I. Sorry.
I therefore recommend buying, say, two or three mantles and at least as many tentacled portions for every actual grown-ass adult—who isn’t afraid of food and brings a spirit of adventure and open-mindedness to new experiences instead of treating a puny and fickle palate like an actual point of pride—among your party.
The prep work will be minimal, so your first step should be whatever you normally do to get a hot fire going in your shitty charcoal grill—load up your chimney starter, or build a huge pyramid of charcoal, or whatever. I advise you to stay away from using much lighter fluid, if possible—your squid, like a good steak, is mostly gonna stand on the strength of its own natural flavor, and not a bunch of seasonings and spices, and so you won’t have barbecue sauce or a caked-on layer of cumin to hide that gasoline reek. If you can use newspaper or clever positioning to light your coals without accelerant, you should.
While your coals are working their way up to a hellish fury, let’s knock out what little prep work there is. Lay a double-layer of paper-towels down on your cutting board, or along the bottom of a big colander, or right there on your kitchen counter. We’re gonna use these paper towels to dry out the squid parts. Squid, you see, is super wet, like scallops are, and it’s not gonna grill up very nice if it’s soaked in sea water (or any other damn water) when it hits the grill. It’ll sizzle and pop and turn ever more opaque, but will fail to brown or char, and that will be too bad. So we’re gonna give it a few minutes sandwiched between some paper towels and draw out some of that water.
But before we get there, we’re gonna do something dumb and counterproductive: we’re gonna rinse off the squid with cool water. Your squid is already mostly clean, and most of whatever evil maladies lurk in the murky abyss will burn off when exposed to a good cleansing fire. If nothing else, a quick rinse here will convince you that nothing especially slimy and malevolent is waiting in the deep sheath that is a squid mantle. It’ll also wash away any particles that might’ve found their way to the surface of your squid while it sat on a fish monger’s display. Give the squid a quick rinse under your faucet, then lay it on your double layer of paper towels. Now lay another double layer of paper towels on top of the squid, and gently press it down so that it is making flush contact with the squid. Leave everything like so until the fire is ready for cooking.
This would be a good time to get your few other ingredients ready. Slice a lemon or two in half. Chop up a handful of parsley. Get out your salt. I happen to think a coarse or flaky sea salt is the right call for grilled squid. I had squid sushi the other night with something called Hakata sea salt on it, and this experience only reaffirmed my strong belief that basically all seafood should be served with coarse or flaky sea salt. If you’ve got something coarse and grey handy, this is its calling. If not, go ahead and throw away your squid, and your lemons, and your parsley, and yourself, you garbage person.
Or just use regular table salt. It’ll be fine.
Your fire should be hot as hell by now. Is it hot as hell? Are the coals glowing a fierce orange? Is there a ring of little demons dancing grotesquely around it? Good. It’s ready. Use your eyes and hovering hands to carefully locate the hottest part of the fire—this section of your grill will be the landing place of your squid, in mere moments.
One last step before squid meets grill: pull the squid out of the paper towel sandwich, dump it into a big mixing bowl, and toss it with a glug or two of cooking oil. If you’ve got something appropriate for high heat, here—canola or sunflower oil or peanut—go with that. If not, olive oil will do fine. We’re not using enough that a little bit of burning is gonna come anywhere close to ruining the flavor of your squid, but there are certainly better uses for olive oil than slicking up foods that are headed for a hot grill. Use what you’ve got, drizzle whatever it is over the squid, and bounce it around a few times so all the squid has a light coating.
It’s cooking time. Use tongs or EXTREME CARE to gently lay your squid parts over the very hottest part of the grill. Immediately it’s going to start to sizzle and its texture is going to start changing. You’re gonna want to pay attention to how and where and in what order you lay down your squid, so that you can turn it in the same order, and pull it off of the grill in the same order, so that no single piece of squid spends much more than two total minutes over the heat. The cooking-time window in which squid is delectable isn’t so tiny, but it’s small enough that the one mantle you leave on there for 30 seconds too long is gonna be noticeably tougher than the all the rest. Make a little row of squid parts, about an inch apart, then make another row beneath it, and keep going, so that when you’re done laying out squid parts, you can go right back to the head of the first row and be just about ready to flip the squid parts in the exact same order.
If we’re doing this right, each squid part will get about a minute on there before flipping, and when you flip them you should see clearly defined grill marks on each piece, as well as some light brown caramelization. If we’re doing this wrong, the mantles are turning to spearheads and the tentacles are all falling down into the fire, and the whole thing is just so fucked up it can never be made right again. Squid is surprisingly accommodating on the grill, and I have absolute faith you can do this with minimal frustration. Yes, even you.
When the squid parts have spent about a minute per side on the grill, use tongs to pull them off of there and into a bowl. Resist the urge to spend a few minutes lining up chicken parts over the still-very-hot fire—the squid will never be better than it is over the next little while, before it starts to get cool. It’ll still be good, but the fire will be hot for much longer than the squid will, so if you’re gonna use this time for anything, it should be for eating squid.
First, let’s dress it up: Squeeze a bunch of lemon over the squid. Dump all that chopped up parsley in there, and a pinch or two of the salt. Maybe drizzle some fruity extra virgin olive oil over it. Toss everything around so all the squid parts get a nice coating of lemon and parsley and crunchy salt. There. You’re done cooking the squid. You can now eat the squid.
Wait, that’s it? It’s still just, you know, squid. It looks like a goddamn squid, but with grill marks. Yes. It is still squid. Cooking it did not convert it into a cheeseburger. Nothing short of mincing the squid is gonna make it look like anything other than a miniaturized version of the Kraken. The thing to do, right now, before you can get squeamish about it, is reach into the bowl with your very fingers, grab a tangle of steaming, lightly-charred tentacles, and fire it home. Do it. Right now. Now. Reach your hand out, pinch a cluster of tentacles, lift it to your mouth, close your lips around it, and chew it with your own teeth. Chew it hungrily, with purpose, as if you already know that it is delicious, because it is. Now. Right now.
Oh, hey, that’s actually really goddamn tasty. Good, isn’t it? It’s just seafood! It has a more pronounced crunch than your average cocktail shrimp, and a lighter ocean-i-ness than your average sea scallop, but it has the same pleasant fish-skin aroma as any other fresh seafood, and a warm, almost nutty flavor as you chew it. The crunchy salt and the char and residue of charcoal smoke help bring out the squid’s very mild sweetness, and the lemon and parsley are just friendly regulars on a bite of good fish. This is good stuff! You are Mediterranean Man, standing there with oily fingers, noshing on simple, rustic preparations of the sea’s splendid bounty. Also you have probably earned the wrath of Cthulhu.
You could just stand there and eat all the squid. That’s fine. If you’re looking for something more meal-like, it’ll stand up really well, both flavor-wise and texturally, if you throw it down on a bed of baby arugula, with some briny olives and piquanté peppers, some cucumber slices, maybe a slab or two of grilled halloumi. It would be right at home on a bed of oily fork pasta with pepper and grated hard cheese sprinkled over it. It also pairs nicely with a fork and a knife, and a plate, and a shaded table out in the fresh air, and a glass of something pale-colored and effervescent. Global warming brought summertime early this year. Go forth and meet it with gusto.