"He that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink."
John Ray, English Naturalist (1627-1705)
Mark Hix is a chef who has been on the scene for many years, is highly revered by his peers in the industry, but seems to have ducked somewhat below the radar to the wider public. He has always championed British produce and seasonality in his cooking but does so in a manner of simplicity and elegance. It came as no surprise to me that I found this recipe in the "March" chapter of his book, "British Seasonal Food", a recipe that is truly representative of his style.
With both the cuttlefish and wild garlic seasons upon us, albeit a month or more earlier than usual, it has been with great anticipation that I have come to make this dish. It sits in both harmony and contrast with the recipe in a recent post, Cuttlefish "a la Plancha" with Wild Garlic, in that the star ingredients are identical, but the cooking method is about as opposite as it could be. In the prior case the cuttlefish is seared hot and fast, whereas in this case it is braised low and slow - a showcasing of the two extreme methods of cooking cuttlefish best. And in both cases, the supporting role is performed by the seasonal co-star, wild garlic.
I'm not in any way advocating that this be eaten with a spoon but if by the time it is served if cannot be then the cuttlefish has either been cooked at too high a heat or for too little time, or both. The flavour of the ink used in this recipe is quite intense so this is probably a dish that will appeal mainly to the Cuttlefishionado, but it should be quite a revelation for the otherwise adventurous.
The recipe below is almost exactly that of Mark Hix's, but for a couple of minor alterations. First of all the ingredient quantities are halved so that it will serve two as a starter. But if you want to serve it as a main, or as a starter for four, just double all the ingredients and you will get back to the original recipe. The second alteration is that I have reserved the inclusion of the ink until the end of the recipe rather than where, as in the original, the cuttlefish is braised for the full cooking time with the ink already incorporated into the gravy. This prevents the cuttlefish from adopting the inky colour and, I feel, brings about the most attractive presentation of the finished dish (I have my suspicions this is what was done for the photo of the dish in the book!). The last alteration is that I have suggested having the pan partially covered during the cooking time. This creates a more moist environment in which the cuttlefish braises, prevents the gravy from reducing and concentrating overly while the cuttlefish is braising and, because I remove the cuttlefish while the gravy is finishing off, allows the consistency of the gravy to be perfected by either boiling it down if too thin, or adding a little water if too thick.
The original recipe calls for a whole 1kg cuttlefish. In my experience that results in 400g of cleaned meat, or 100g per serving. Because of the intensity and richness of the stock and ink gravy I agree with Mark Hix's suggestion that the dish be served as a starter and a 100g serving is perfect. If buying the cuttlefish already cleaned the likelihood is the ink won't come with it (but you could ask!). However, cuttlefish ink can be bought in sachets (mine are 4g each), and this works perfectly well. Cleaning a whole cuttlefish without piercing the ink sac is quite a delicate procedure and sadly, the last time I (thought I) was successful, it turned out the beast had already shed its ink, most likely all over the fishermen that it was annoyed at having been caught by.
For a dinner party, it is possible to do most of the work ahead of time. Once the cuttlefish has been removed from the pan at Step 4, both the cuttlefish and the gravy can be kept until just before it is time to serve. All that is then required is to reheat the gravy as in the rest of Step 4 and meanwhile gently warm the cuttlefish in the oven or, ideally, in the microwave.
Braised Cuttlefish with Wild Garlic
Ingredients (Serves 2 as a starter)
200g (cleaned weight) cuttlefish, including body, wings, legs and tentacles, washed and dried well, and cut into roughly 3cm pieces
Sunflower or vegetable oil
1 shallot, very finely chopped
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
10-15g butter (a good knob)
1½ tsp plain flour
50ml white wine
125ml fish stock, hot
3-4g cuttlefish ink
Handful of wild garlic leaves, washed
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a heavy-based frying pan or skillet until it is hot enough for the cuttlefish to sizzle when it hits the pan. Season the cuttlefish pieces and fry (in batches if necessary) for 30 seconds to a minute each side or until it takes on a slightly golden colour. Remove and keep aside.
In a clean pan, melt the butter and fry the shallot gently for a couple of minutes until it softens then add the garlic and fry for a further minute. Add the flour and cook for about a minute then pour in the white wine and stock in batches, stirring it in well to avoid lumps forming (think with your 'roux' hat on).
Once the wine and stock are incorporated, season (go easy on the salt) and bring to the boil. Return the cuttlefish to the pan, partially cover with a lid and simmer very gently over a low heat for 30-40 minutes or until the cuttlefish is very tender (it should cut with a spoon).
Remove the cuttlefish from the pan and keep warm. Stir the cuttlefish ink into the gravy and, if required, a little water to thin to the gravy. Adjust the seasoning as preferred and let the gravy simmer for a couple of minutes then add the wild garlic leaves and continue to simmer for a few minutes more until the leaves have wilted.
Put the cuttlefish pieces in the centre of soup bowls then spoon the gravy around and over. Serve straightaway.
"British Seasonal Food", Mark Hix (2008), pp. 48: https://www.amazon.co.uk/British-Seasonal-Food-Mark-Hix/dp/1844006220