The truly great thing about this pan-fried calamari recipe is that it’s so easy to cook outstandingly well. Hot and fast is the key to this simple, elegant starter. Serve it with our first-class chili jelly for that touch of pop that makes things even more memorable.
Calamari — aka squid — tends to be one of those foods that’s a bit overlooked by home cooks. Maybe it’s the sight of them that makes us pass them by on our shopping trips. Back in 1982, one of the giants of food-writing, Craig Claiborne, had this to say in the New York Times: “Perhaps it is the squid’s appearance that makes many Americans hesitate to eat it. Squid are, indeed, among the ugly ducklings of the deep.”
But they are also one of its most seriously special treats. In that regard, they’re a bit like oysters — which are also super special and definitely weird looking. However, for something that’s rightly classed as a delicacy, calamari are surprisingly inexpensive. Unlike oysters.
Ugly ducklings they may be, but, happily, calamari freezes exceptionally well, and it typically comes nicely prepared and neatly packaged. That suits me just fine, and I can see no reason to especially seek out the fresh variety.
Pan fried calamari is simple to prep, simple to cook, simple to serve
Once you’ve made the chili jelly, fabulously good calamari can be prepped and cooked in well under ten minutes. And most of that time is spent on some simple prep. That’ll be a little work on the calamari with a sharp knife, a quick milk bath, and a light dredging in some seasoned flour. Then flash-fried in some very hot oil for just two minutes.
That’s all it takes to rustle-up tender calamari with a fine golden crunch on the outside. And when I say tender, I mean cut-with-a-teaspoon tender.
Plate the just-cooked calamari with a few leaves of crisp, peppery arugula, some lemon wedges, a couple of slices of a crusty baguette, and a generous dollop of garlic mayonnaise. Serve our fine chili jelly alongside so folks can help themselves. Now, that’s a dish to be proud of. Fab. Simply fab.
Choosing your calamari
Frozen calamari is often sold as steaks, rings, and ‘heads’. The oblong-ish steaks are usually about 5 inches long, 3 inches wide and just under a third of an inch thick. The fairly chunky, bracelet-like rings are similarly thick — the steaks and the rings are both cut from the squids’ tubular bodies.
The so-called “heads”, to say the least, are a bit different. They’ve got tentacles — but are certainly not to be avoided. My favorite mix? An equal weight of steaks and heads. That way you get the best of both worlds in terms of flavor and texture.
The chili jelly — A real treat in its own right
Cayenne or serrano chilies, cherry tomatoes, garlic, and Spanish onion get sautéed in a pan with a little olive oil, then gently simmered with smoky demerara sugar, a little oriental fish sauce, ground cumin, paprika, and some cutting lime juice.
Hot and sweet but with real depth to its layers of flavor, this jelly might make you think twice about ever reaching again for your favorite tomato ketchup. That’s why I make enough to fill a 16-ounce jar that’ll keep for at least for a week in the refrigerator.
Pan-Fried Calamari With Rich Chili Jelly
- 1 16-ounce glass jar with screw-top lid
For the chili jelly
- 4 red cayenne or serrano chilies finely diced, seeds and all
- 18 ounces ripe cherry tomatoes roughly cut into quarters, skins, seeds and all
- 1 red onion medium-sized, peeled, halved and very thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 1 1/2 inches fresh ginger peeled and grated
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground paprika
- 10 ounces demerara sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 level tablespoon ground sea salt
- 2 heaped teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
For the calamari (Fresh is best – but frozen is nearly just as good
- 12 ounces calamari steaks defrosted. That’s probably three or four steaks, each about 5 inches long, 3 inches wide and around a third of an inch thick
- 12 ounces calamari ‘heads’ defrosted
- ½ cup full cream milk
- 6 heaped teaspoons plain flour
- 1 heaped teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 level tablespoon ground sea salt
- 6 heaped tablespoons coconut oil the odorless cooking variety
The chili jelly
- Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over a low-medium heat. Add the onion and the salt, stir well, and drop the heat to low. Continue cooking for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally so the onions gently soften but get nowhere near to browning. Stir in the garlic and cook for another 90 seconds.
- Add the chopped cherry tomatoes and the diced chilis, turn the heat to medium, give everything a good stir and after two minutes – plus a couple more stirs – drop the heat to low again. Cook for about 12 minutes with a couple of encouraging stirs so the tomatoes give up most of their body.
- Now add the ginger, cumin, paprika, fish sauce, and black pepper. Stir well to combine everything. Turn the heat to medium, bring the pan to a bare boil, and then immediately remove it from the heat.
- Let the mix cool for a few minutes, then pour it into a food processor. Whizz it for a minute, then return it to the pan set on a low-medium heat. Add the demerara sugar and give the pan a thorough stir. As soon as the jelly starts to bubble, lower the heat and let it gently – and I mean gently – simmer for 35 minutes, stirring now and again to prevent any sticking to the bottom or sides of the pan.
- Remove the pan from the heat and then stir in the lime juice. Set the pan aside with the lid ajar, and let it cool for 15 minutes. That’s it, chili jelly done.
- While the jelly’s cooling, you can prep its jar. Thoroughly wash and rinse the jar and its lid in hot water. Dry the lid and shake most of the water from the jar before setting it in a microwave for 2 minutes on high. This will pretty much sterilise the jar. Take a bit of care now – that jar’s gonna be pretty hot when you remove it from the microwave.
- Pour the chili jelly into the jar and lightly screw on the lid – don’t screw it fully closed – and let the jar cool for 30 minutes before you tighten the lid.
Prep the calamari
- First the steaks. Pat them lightly dry with some kitchen towel. Use a sharp knife to cut half the steaks along their shorter side into strips a third of inch wide.
- Cut each of the remaining steaks into two triangles. Now carefully score each triangle with a criss-cross, diamond pattern a quarter of an inch apart. You want to cut the pattern half-way into the thickness of each triangular piece. A little care and a sharp knife make this pretty easy.
- For the tentacled heads, turn them out onto some paper towel and pat them lightly dry.
- Put the steaks and the heads into a mixing bowl, pour in the milk and gently mix the lot together with your fingers.
- Now for some dredging. On a good-sized dinner plate, mix the flour with the seasoning salt and pepper.
- Tip the calamari into a sieve to drain off as much milk as you can. Now, piece by piece, dip the calamari – steaks and heads – into the flour so they get coated all over. Give them a bit of a shake to remove any excess flour and set the lightly coated calamari onto another good-sized dinner plate. Keep the pieces of steak on one side of the plate and the heads on the other. The steak pieces are going to get cooked first, then the heads.
Cooking the calamari – hot and fast (the key to great calamari)
- Set a good-sized skillet (a twelve-inch is ideal) onto a high heat and add the coconut oil. The oil needs to be sufficiently hot so that when you add the first piece of calamari steak it really sizzles – really sizzles.
- Now quickly add the rest of the steak pieces, evenly spaced in a single layer across the skillet. Don’t overcrowd the skillet – rather cook the steak pieces in two batches. They have to fry – not poach.
- Let them fry for a minute then quickly turn them and fry for another minute. That’s just one, hotly sizzling minute each side. And that’s the way to get a crisp golden coat on each still-tender piece.
- So, fast as you can after that second, hot minute, use a slotted spoon to remove the steaks and set them onto some kitchen towel.
- Now for the heads. Keep the skillet on its sizzling high heat and quickly add the heads. Once again, don’t crowd the skillet – cook them in two batches if need be. Fry the heads for one minute, then quickly turn them for another sizzling minute. Done. Get them swiftly out of the skillet and onto the kitchen towel.
- Serve immediately – equal parts of heads and steak pieces on each lucky diners’ plate, along with the rich chili jelly.