temperatures rising: simple pan seared calamari with fresh tomato sauce

The past few days have been very un-Colorado-esque: sticky and muggy with spots and heaves of rain, and with soaring temperatures that have made all of these singularly unpleasant things downright unbearable.

I can hardly complain – for a place that boasts “300 days of sunshine,” this hair-curlingly hot and stuffy weather pattern that is working itself out is definitely an exception to our normally bright and sunny norm.  And, actually, it is almost kind of nice to hear those high-altitude fat droplets of rain start to kamikaze themselves on our deck.  Where back East it would rain for days on end, weeks at a time, here you get the sense that the humidity and rain is actually needed, appreciated, and revered.

For without it, the already dangerously high-alert-fire warnings would only become higher, my poor lettuces would only wilt and recoil more, and the pug would dramatically throw herself on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor once again (making completely sure she is in my view), just to drive home the point that everyone notices it has been hot as hades up in here, as of late.

When the little red numbers on my dash eeked up to 100F on Monday of this week (true story), the only thing I could muster for lunch was a little bowl of chilled cucumber soup from The Kitchen Next Door.  I had a one o’clock lunch date with a family friend, and though I saw that cheery little yellow sun beaming brightly on my weather app, I had stupidly decided that a pair of dark denim skin-tight-skinnies were appropriate attire for a day that was to boast some of this season’s highs.

Not surprising at all, actually, this decision coming from the girl who still has never learned to turn down sky-high-toe-numbing heels in favor of a more sensible flat – I’ve never claimed myself to be the practical one, in that sense.  We can’t be perfect all the time, now can we?

(But surely if you saw the blouse I wore, you’d understand my skinny rational.  Surely.)

And so at lunch I sat, outside, perfectly framed by the sun beaming down over West Pearl Street, sweat surely pooling in the recesses of my tightly-clad bent knees, where I found myself barely able to slurp down the tiny ramekin of chilled soup that was set down in front of me.  It was on my agenda to skip over to the market after lunch to pick up a few things for supper, but by the time we were finished I felt like I had reached the culmination of a hot yoga retreat, and was hardly in the mood to think about cooking.

Much like the old adage that you should never grocery shop when you are hungry, it is also prudent to never grocery shop when you are steaming hot.  I found myself lingering far too long in front of the dairy case, opening the door to snuggle up close to the neatly lined up rows of half-and-half, and surely elicting some questionable stares by not budging for at least seven minutes.  I bought two (!) boxes of popsicles, and decided that even the easy dinner I had planned on, a simple roast chicken with vegetables, sounded way too HOT.

I wanted fast, I wanted healthy, I wanted light, and I wanted simple.  Calamari from the iced-down fish case (where thankfully I did refrain from pressing my face against the cold glass) were perfect.  I procured myself a pound (and some extra ice – just to keep them extra cold) and continued on to gather the rest of what would be a fresh, light, dinner – a bunch of fresh local hothouse tomatoes from Longmont, an onion, a head of garlic, and some freshly baked bread.  With some garden basil and a salad of mixed lettuces from our veggie patch, it would be just the thing – along with a frosty bottle of white wine – to cool down and relax with.

I lightly dusted the calamari in flour after seasoning it, to give it just a teeny bit of roughness and extra dryness for the olive oil to latch onto after tossing it into a blisteringly hot pan.  Fresh calamari cooks in less than two-minutes, and emerges from the hot pan so tender, with tiny little crusted up bits dotting every piece.  The tomatoes cook down into the lightest and freshest sauce – the very essence of tomatoes – which would moonlight amazingly tipped over a pile of fresh pasta.  In fact, this entire dish could be served up over angel hair or another skinny pasta; it is very good on it’s own, with a bit of bread and salad, but could be made into something a bit more hefty with simple boiled pasta and a few shavings of parmesan.

It’s a shame that so much calamari is heavily breaded and deep fried; when you treat it gently, and minimally, it’s flavor and texture is able to shine, and it is juicy, delicate, and very healthy.  Despite it seeming like a bit of an indulgence, calamari is actually very inexpensive at the market – I found it for $5.99 a pound at Whole Foods, which is very little considering the volume of calamari that makes up one pound.  But the very best thing about making calamari at home is not only the price (you’ll see – after making it yourself, you’ll be shocked to see what the markup is in restaurants for tiny portions), but also your ability to dictate how it is prepared (no clobberingly-heavy crusts here) and pull it off the heat at that exact right moment, saving yourself from experiencing dreadfully rubbery squid.  (Collective ewwww.)

This dish is really simple and fast, coming together in about 30 minutes, with 25 of those being sauce simmering time. Save this for a night when it is too hot to think about slaving over a stove, and when a nice glass of icy white wine fits the bill perfectly.

Simple Pan Seared Calamari with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Serves 2 (as a meal, with salad and fresh bread) or 4 (as an appetizer)

When buying calamari, make sure that they are already cleaned for you (unless you are skilled in doing this decidedly dirty task), and be sure to rinse them well and pat them dry before searing. If you put calamari with any extra moisture on it in oil, it will spit, sputter, and send molten drops of olive oil onto your hands and arms – not fun…so don’t skimp when it comes to this step.

If you are gluten-free, feel free to substitute potato flour for the white flour here, or omit it all together.  Add as much or as little red pepper flake as you like, to suit your tastes for spiciness.  I opt to put in a large pinch here, as I think the subtle heat is really nice with the tomato sauce and calamari.

Depending on the size of your pan you may have to cook your calamari in two batches, which is totally fine. Just remove the first batch with a slotted spoon and reserve to the side; when the second batch is almost done (has about 15-20 seconds left), add the first batch back to the pan to ensure that the calamari is evenly hot. Be very careful not to overcook your calamari….if left in the pan for too long (more than a couple of minutes) it will become rubbery and chewy. The key is to just cook it through, so that it is not translucent and the flour is just slightly browned in places.

1 pound calamari, tubes & tentacles, cleaned
1/4 – 1/3 cup flour
kosher salt & black pepper
handful (about 1/3 cup) basil, for garnish
olive oil (about 2-3 Tbsp)

4 ripe fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 a large red onion, chopped
2 Tbsp tomato paste
pinch of crushed red pepper flake (optional)
kosher salt & black pepper
olive oil (about 1 1/2 Tbsp)

to serve: fresh cracked black pepper, crusty bread, green salad.

First, make the sauce. In a medium size saucepan, heat enough olive oil to cover the pan well over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add in the chopped red onion and a pinch of kosher salt, and cook until the onion is translucent on the edges and very fragrant, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add in the minced garlic, and stir constantly, until the garlic is releasing it’s fragrance and is mixed well with the onion, about one minute. Add the tomato paste and a good pinch of the red pepper flake (optional), and stir the mixture a minute more. Add in the chopped fresh tomatoes, and stir.

Stir the sauce mixture until the fresh tomatoes are well coated in the garlic, onion, and tomato paste, and when the tomatoes begin to sizzle and pop, reduce the heat to medium/low. Simmer the sauce, stirring frequently, until it thickens and the tomatoes have broken down into a nice, silky, unctuous sauce, about 20-25 minutes. Taste sauce often, and adjust the salt and black pepper levels as needed. (I add a good pinch of salt and few grinds of pepper.)

While the sauce simmers, prepare your calamari. Make sure the calamari is well rinsed, and be sure to pat it dry very well (see note above re: oil spattering). Separate the calamari into two piles: tubes and tentacles. Using a very sharp knife, cut the tubes into thick rings, about 1/2″ thick – you’ll want to keep them on the thicker side so they cook evenly with the tentacles and remain tender. Spread both the tubes and tentacles out on a plate or cutting board, and season them gently with kosher salt and fresh black pepper. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the calamari, and gently toss it about with your hands, so that each piece is mostly covered with a light dusting of flour (shake any excess off).

Cut your basil into a chiffonade (aka, skinny strips – do this by stacking the basil leaves in your hand, rolling them like a carpet, and slicing them into skinny strands). Set aside.

When the sauce is mostly smooth (it will be a rustic sauce with a good bit of texture, but you want to make sure there are no pieces of large, raw, tomato left), heat a very heavy (preferably) cast iron pan over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add in enough olive oil to coat the pan generously, about 2-3 Tbsp. Add your calamari (you may need to do this in batches – see above), and toss quickly just to make sure that the pieces are spread out. Let the calamari sear for about 30-45 seconds, and then toss again, and cook for another 30-45 seconds. Be very careful not to overcook it; do not walk away from the pan or become sidetracked by whiney pugs, refilling wine glasses, or hungry dinner guests. (Consider yourself warned!)

Plate the calamari immediately to avoid overcooking (remember you will not want to have it on the heat for more than one minute thirty seconds/two minutes or so). Pour the tomato sauce on a large platter, and gently spoon the pan fried calamari over the top. Garnish the calamari with the basil chiffonade, and serve immediately.

7 responses to “temperatures rising: simple pan seared calamari with fresh tomato sauce

  1. Life & Sunshine

    this looks amazing. perfectly fresh for summer!

  2. I wouldn’t call it simple. I would call it super delicious!

  3. Pingback: 1. Fresh Calamari Stuffed with Paški Sir and Pršut | Sirana Gligora, Paški Sir

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