The return of the giant squid

From monster of the deep to monstrous entrée

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Mike Hale

The Humboldt squid is the stuff of seafaring legend, something Captain Nemo would battle in a Jules Verne novel.

But Dosidicus gigas is not a figment of someone’s imagination. These fascinatingly grotesque creatures can reach 7 feet in length and weigh in excess of 100 pounds, are known cannibals and can tear off a fisherman’s hand with its razor-sharp beak, dousing its prey with prodigious amounts of black ink.

Terrifying, yes, but chefs are now turning the tables on these giant cephalopods, purchasing 30- to 50-pounders from fish mongers and using the product at their restaurants.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Lou Zeidberg, a marine scientist at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey who studies the giant squid. “There’s plenty of protein there. I personally eat it, and it tastes fine. A lot of seafood is just a means of conveyance for tartar sauce.”

The Humboldt squid showed up along California’s central coast en masse in 2002 during an El Niño weather pattern. Normally found in warmer waters off Mexico, the squid found the local waters to its liking and stuck around. According to Zeidberg, they thrive on hake, sardines, anchovies and market squid, the smaller Monterey calamari that diners are used to seeing on local menus.

Commercial fishermen, particularly in Mexico, target the Humboldt specifically (worldwide, 800,000 tons of jumbo squid were caught in 2006).

Along the California coast, the squid is showing up as by-catch in fishing nets, and on the hooks of adventurous sport anglers.

“Every time we go out (for a scientific observation) we see them,” said Zeidberg, who is part of a team investigating the behavioral patterns of this species in the ocean by tagging and releasing them.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the Humboldt squid is a good choice and considered sustainable, although Zeidberg said the state of the overall population is unknown, and enforcement of fishery regulations is minimal. And Zeidberg’s data shows that their adaptable hunting strategies allow them to prey upon commercially important fishery species such as hake and anchovy.

“It’s my understanding they are eating everything in their path,” said chef Brandon Miller, of Mundaka, the first restaurant in Carmel, Calif., to serve Humboldt squid. “So why not eat a few of them?” Miller saw Humboldt squid on the list of fresh seafood faxed by his fish vendor, and he ordered a 40-pounder to start.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of octopus and squid, so I wasn’t freaked out,” said Miller, who is having some fun with his first Humboldt dish, starting with its name: sea monster Bolognese.

“I wanted to start with something they do in Spain, making fish dishes look like meat dishes,” he said.

Miller said many peasant dishes use squid or other seafood to extend the meat and help create a softer texture. For his penette pasta with sea monster Bolognese, he braises the squid (it comes cleaned) for an hour to break down the protein. After cooling, he pulses chunks in a food processor until it resembles ground beef. Then he continues as if making a classic Bolognese. The result is a rich, savory concoction that does not taste fishy.

“It’s selling really well,” he said. “I think people are naturally curious.”

Miller plans to create other dishes with the product, including showcasing its natural texture and appearance.

“I’ve seen it whole-roasted in a pizza oven before,” he said. “There are a lot of different directions to go.”

Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco, known as the “offal chef ” for his inclination to use all parts of an animal, has been cooking Humboldt squid for a few years now. One of his most popular preparations is “giant squid with chickpeas.” He braises the whole squid with capers, garlic, parsley stems, lemon peels, anchovies and San Marzano tomatoes.

After two hours the squid releases its liquid and becomes tender.

He plates chunks of the 1-inch thick pieces with chickpeas, shaved fennel and onions. The recipe, along with a slide show, can be viewed at Cosentino’s blog at www.offalgood.com.

A similar recipe Cosentino has altered for the home cook is called Humboldt squid in umido (umido is a sauce in which a food is cooked and served, especially one made from the food’s own juices).

Cosentino said he learned the recipe from chef Gennaro Contaldo when he worked with him at his London restaurant
Passione. “Gennaro hails from Italy’s Amalfi coast, and this dish is
typical of what would be served as a casual meal once the fishermen
brought in their catch,” Cosentino said.

Another
San Francisco restaurant using Humboldt squid is Aziza, a
Michelin-starred Moroccan-food place. Chef de cuisine Louis Maldonado
said they use the body and not the tentacles to make their Humboldt
squid with fennel, tomato and celery.

Cut into 1-inch chunks, the squid is said to be sweet and tender with the caramelized fennel sauce (it is raved about on the social dining site chowhound. com).

Internet
searches unearth hit-andmiss anecdotes about cooking Humboldt squid, a
beast full of muscles, connective sleeves and tendon-like tissue.

Many find the beasts simply too tough and rubbery.

However, in the hands of professionals, the Humboldt can be quite tasty. (c) 2009, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.).

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.