Dinner last night started in Venice a year and a half ago. It was early morning in those narrow streets, my dad and I being the lone tourists wandering the wet cobblestones of the Rialto market. The produce stands all seemed to be in bloom—pink speckled pole beans, golden squash blossoms, clusters of bright red and yellow peppers like bouquets of Christmas lights. Underneath the rotunda of the fishmongers, we passed bins of silvery fish, translucent shrimp, and octopi displayed upside down like tentacled pincushions.
Along the edges of the market, small shops open on to the sidewalk, selling dried pasta, sauces, cheeses, complements to the fresh produce and seafood outside. I wandered into one, wishing buongiorno to the grocer, and on a shelf amidst bottled condiments spied a small jar of nero di seppia: cuttlefish ink. It was something I had heard of but never before desired, and in an impulsive moment I grabbed it and began digging in my pocket for euros. Speaking maybe thirty words of Italian, I smiled to the grocer and silently handed over the money, unwilling to identify myself for what I really was: a culinary tourist, just another young American seeking the true flavors of Italy.
The grocer gave me my change, looked down at his register, and, smiling apologetically, rattled off a string of Italian, no part of which I could understand. Yet somehow it was clear to me that he was apologizing for giving me too much change. I opened my palm and allowed him to reclaim the mistakenly given coins. He apologized again, I smiled and mumbled something vaguely Italian—did I say grazie or non importa or ciao? I can’t remember—and left.
I carried that bottle of ink back to the states, kept it in the front of the pantry, brought it with me to a new home, but didn’t open it. Someday, I knew, I would, but in the meantime it was a very special souvenir—a reminder of a brief moment where I melted naturally into the unfamiliar, where my strangeness was not so apparent, where I could have been any young Italian woman buying ingredients for dinner. It was the kind of moment many of us dream of when we travel, a moment where you glimpse, however briefly, what it might be like to live in this strange and foreign world.
Fast forward to a typically tempestuous Oregon spring day, the kitchen windows steamy and warm against the occasional downpour outside. Every surface of the kitchen is covered with the ingredients and accoutrements of a squid ink feast, and the four of us dance around each other as we reach to stir a pot, grab a handful of parsley, lift a wine glass. We feel the safety of our numbers, and with a laugh and a toss of the head we surge courageously forward with recipes and techniques never before tried by any of us.
All of our food is stained black. We’ve decided to test the squid ink in two dishes: a fresh egg pasta cooked with calamari in a white wine garlic sauce, and a Spanish-style risotto with calamari and garlic mayonnaise. I’ve made pasta twice before but never been the one in charge; none of us have ever made fresh mayonnaise. Everything comes off without a hitch. It’s one of those serendipitous days when everyone instinctively knows when the consistency is right and how much salt is enough.
There’s no moral to this story, nothing poetically coming full circle. I didn’t learn Italian and I’ve still never made mayonnaise. But I’ve been thinking about authenticity and “being there,” about whether we can still call it alioli if we’ve added lemon juice, and who gets to decide, about quiet confidence when you’re alone and casual daring when you’re among friends. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how lovely it was to spend an afternoon in a cluttered, bustling kitchen with people who are as curious as I am and who don’t think twice when I invite them over to eat black food, and how the joy of feasting is subtly different when everyone at the table was also a cook in the kitchen.
Squid ink looks more dramatic than it tastes. Its uncooked smell was like a clean harbor, and when heated it brought to mind the deep earthiness of mushrooms. It imparted a mineral flavor to the pasta and rice, an almost metallic brightness. We ate our meal with a spinach salad on the side, a welcome spot of refreshing green in between buttery, garlicky bites of risotto–and on that note I would insist that you serve this risotto with the garlic mayonnaise. It brings the dish to a different level. If you’re not comfortable serving a sauce with raw egg, whip some garlic and lemon into a cup or so of store-bought mayonnaise. It won’t be as good but it will do.
Squid Ink Pasta
Adapted from My Kitchen Moovement
2 C semolina flour
1/2 t salt
1 T squid or cuttlefish ink
1 t olive oil (optional)
Mound flour on work surface. Whisk eggs, salt, and ink in a small bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the egg mixture. Mix carefully with a fork, pulling the flour in from the edges until you have a workable dough. Knead 8-10 minutes, adding flour or water as necessary. The dough should be stiff but neither tacky nor dry. Let rest 20 minutes, covered with plastic.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces and keep under plastic while not working. Take the first piece of dough and dust the work surface and the dough with semolina. Pass the dough through the pasta maker at the widest setting. Continue passing the dough through the pasta maker, adjusting the roller down one size each time until you reach the desired thickness. Cut into ravioli or noodles as desired. If not using immediately, dust well with semolina and refrigerate or freeze.
Squid Ink Pasta with Calamari
16 oz. squid ink pasta (one batch of the above recipe)
2 T butter
4 T olive oil
1 1/2 lb. calamari, defrosted
1 C dry white wine
1 C fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
2 t garlic, minced
1 t red pepper flakes
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook 2 minutes and strain (the pasta will continue to cook in the sauce).
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large saucepan. When begins to bubble, add the calamari and cook 1-2 minutes. Add wine to the pan and bring to a simmer. Add stock, garlic, pepper flakes, and pasta and return to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer 4-5 minutes, stirring, or until pasta is tender but firm to the bite.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6-8 as a side.
Squid Ink Risotto
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s Food of Spain
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 can diced tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 lb. calamari, thawed
2 1/2 C Arborio rice
4 1/2 C fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
1 C dry white wine
20 grams of squid ink
Parsley and Parmesan to garnish
In a large saucepan, saute onions in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often, until golden. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the squid and cook over medium, stirring and turning, for 5-8 minutes. Add the rice and stir so that the grains are well-coated.
Bring the stock and wine to boil in a separate pan. Mix in the squid ink very well. Pour the liquid over the rice, add salt to taste, and stir well, spreading the rice evenly in the pan. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes without stirring, then cook 8-10 minutes until rice is tender. Rotate the pan to cook evenly. Add boiling water if too much liquid evaporates before the rice is cooked.
Serve with parsley, Parmesan, and garlic mayonnaise sauce. Serves 6-8.
2 large egg yolks at room temperature
5 large cloves garlic
3/4-1 1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
splash of white wine vinegar
Put yolks in a warm mixing bowl. Mash garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt and add to egg yolks. Add oil drop by drop, whisking constantly. When the mixture begins to thicken, you may add the oil more quickly but resist the urge to go too quickly. Do not add oil faster than the egg can incorporate it. When the sauce is at the desired consistency, taste and add salt if necessary. Keeps a few days in the fridge.