Calamares a la Romana
Updated: Mar 6, 2021
"But when a girl gives a boy a dead squid - that had to mean something."
William Goldman, "The Silent Gondoliers" (1983)
We all know this dish of "squid rings" which we associate with sunny lunches on the coast of Spain. It's one of few dishes that in fact has no precise regional home in the country and can be found inland as much as by the sea. I made these for a friend's daughter when I was staying with them in their finca last summer, because she wanted squid. As soon as they were made she didn't want squid! But these things happen.
It is possible to enjoy squid fried with just a coating of flour but for that really crispy experience it's necessary to construct a batter of sorts. Then, of course, the trick is to find a consistency that is neither so thick as to result in a greasy finish at the same time as preventing the squid from cooking, nor so thin as it comes away in the oil. I found guidance in an online piece by Joan Roca (and from my Spanish "Tía") although I haven't followed it precisely. All I know is that this method works.
One of my favourite tapas restaurants in Valencia serve their calamares simply with mayonnaise, though if my memory serves me well they do not use a batter but achieve a semi-crispy finish just by coating the squid with flour. I have chosen to accompany mine with an alioli, a pungent, garlicky emulsion sauce made with olive oil, unique to Spain but distinct from the Provencal aïoli, which is a standard mayonnaise (including egg yolk) in its construction, spiked with garlic and that would typically accompany a French soupe de poisson. At the end of the day, these calamares are delicious with a garlic mayonnaise.
For the alioli, it would not be out of place to build it using only extra virgin olive oil. I have seen recipes which use only extra virgin olive oil, but then I have also come across recipes which use only sunflower oil. I, for one, have never had much success building up an emulsion with just extra virgin olive oil. Moreover, given the amount of garlic in the mix, it strikes me as overly-extravagant to use only extra virgin olive oil and, it has come to be that my preferred oil for making a mayonnaise is groundnut oil, a preference that came from having made the recipe for mayonnaise by the king of sauces, Michel Roux ("Sauces: Savoury & Sweet"). So my suggestion is to use two-thirds groundnut (or sunflower) oil to build up the emulsion, and finish it off with the remaining third quantity of extra virgin olive oil to finish the creation off.
Similarly, for the frying, extra virgin olive oil can again be found to be recommended. And again this seems over-extravagant to me (it's perhaps a different matter of economics in Spain where olive oil is far cheaper than it is in the UK), but olive oil is the right flavour. So I suggest using a standard olive oil - still expensive but a fair compromise in my view.
The batter makes far more than you need, certainly enough for twice the quantity of squid, so if you wish to double up the recipe there is no need to double up the quantities for the batter.
Calamares a la Romana
Ingredients (Serves 2 as part of a tapas spread)
300g squid, skinned and cleaned
150g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
250ml cold fizzy water from a new bottle (ideally soda water) plus another 50ml
Sea salt, a hefty pinch
Lemon wedges, to serve
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
¼ tsp salt
Half an egg yolk
60ml groundnut (or sunflower) oil
30ml extra virgin olive oil (more or less as required)
First make the alioli. Either pound the garlic and salt with a pestle and mortar, or scrape the garlic over the salt with the blade of a knife. Whichever you choose you are aiming for a smooth, creamy paste. Put this paste in a bowl and add the half egg yolk. With an electric hand whisk combine the contents of the bowl and then very slowly drip the groundnut (or sunflower) oil into the bowl, whisking continuously. During this time, the texture of the mixture will resemble that of toothpaste. Once all this oil has been incorporated continue slowly whisking in the extra virgin olive oil. Not all the oil may be required and equally a little extra may be required. Ultimately the objective is to achieve a thick mayonnaise-type consistency that the fried squid can be dunked in. Once ready, transfer to a serving bowl, cover and fridge until needed.
Cut the squid body into rings about 1cm wide. The wings can be cut into 1cm strips and the tentacles halved lengthways. Make sure the squid is completely dry, using kitchen paper, before proceeding.
For the batter, sift the 150g plain flour into a bowl, add the egg, the 250ml fizzy water and a hefty pinch of salt and whisk into a smooth batter. Sift some more flour into a separate bowl in which the squid pieces can be dusted.
Heat sufficient olive oil in a wok, saucepan or shallow frying pan, ideally to a temperature of 175°C. Set a plate to one side lined with kitchen paper to drain the cooked squid.
Just before cooking, add the extra 50ml fizzy water to the batter and whisk in. Dust the squid pieces in the flour, shake off the excess then dunk them in the batter. Let the excess batter drain off and then carefully put the squid pieces in the hot oil - they should sizzle immediately. Fry the squid in batches without overcrowding the pan. The total cooking time for a batch will be approximately 2 minutes and they will likely need to be turned over once or twice during cooking. As each batch finishes cooking transfer it to the paper-lined plate to allow them to drain and continue with the next batch.
Serve the calamares a la romana as soon as possible after cooking accompanied by the alioli, lime wedges and plenty of napkins.
"Sauces: Savoury and Sweet", Michel Roux (2009), pp. 82: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sauces-Savoury-Sweet-Michel-Roux/dp/1844006972
"Esta es la receta de calamares a la romana de Joan Roca y sus claves para que queden perfectos (con vídeo incluido)", directoalpaladar.com, accessed 25 August 2020