OK, so this is a slightly curveball dish, certainly for most of us who don’t have access to really good fish sellers. On the whole, I’m pretty well served in Birmingham – we’re a big, diverse city, and our fish market accommodates that – we can even get cuttlefish. The problem is they sell them precleaned – and they don’t keep the ink sac. That will make a passable pasta senza nero di sepia, but the nero is really what this meal should be all about.
There is a perfectly good reason that they don’t keep the ink sacs, it’s because they are an armed and volatile liability to have lying around – especially in a domestic setting. The ink is part of the cuttlefish’s defence mechanism – if danger threatens, then a small release of this into the water creates an instant pea-souper, giving our hero the cover to make a fast exit.
Take the fish out of water, and the ink out of the fish (it’s in a hard to miss silvery, iridescent pouch), and you’ll find a small ball of black paste. So far, so innocuous. However, a little of this ink can go a long, long way. One slip, and you’ll be scrubbing for weeks. There are more 21st century ways of sourcing your ink – you can sometimes find it presealed into little plastic pouches (like the ones attached to cut flowers), allowing for some containment of the pigmentary danger. But the real thing will be fresher, stronger and certainly give you a better dish at the end.
So, if you can find intact cuttlefish, ask the fishmonger to clean them for you by all means – but ask them to keep the squid sac for you. Be brave! And keep a scrubbing brush close to hand, just in case.
This is one of those ‘scare the horses’ dishes that people will either love, hate, or be too terrified to try. There’s no doubt that different food cultures are often mutually appalled and repelled by each other’s idiosyncrasies. British tastes have gone soft of late, so that many of us are challenged by meals based on offal, or when asked to suck the brains from a prawn (but, please, try it – it’s the best bit). And, well, jet black ink from a creepily intelligent chameleon of the sea…it’s just a bit left field of roast beef and apple crumble. To be fair, I think the Sicilian responded in much the same way when I first introduced him to Heinz tinned spaghetti.
Assuming you’re feeling adventurous though, and that you can find your cuttlefish, give this dish a go. It’s such a rich, sweet, BLACK meal. You can play around with the seasoning to make it hotter or more herby – but at the heart of this dish is the unique ink depth of flavour. It’s like nothing else – the only comparable depth of I can think of is sea urchins, but this lacks that divisive, love it/hate it iodine whack.
Pasta col nero di seppia (serves 4)
3 or 4 small, cleaned Cuttlefish, cut into small chunks (size of a 20p piece).
A medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic
3-4 tablespoons of tomato puree
1 tablespoon estratto di pomodoro ( super concentrated sun-dried tomato paste ). It’s hard to find, but well worth it for added intensity and umami. If you know anyone going to Sicily – ask them to bring you some back – you can buy it at any supermarket by the tub. And I’m sure there will be somewhere in London that has it, but I’m still searching.
Parsley, pepper, salt and tabaso (optional)
Pasta – it should be a ‘long pasta’ – usually linguine. But we found that jumbo penne is just as good. The chunks of meat slip inside the penne – like mini cannelloni.
In a wide, deep frying pan (a small wok is ideal) fry off your onion in some olive oil, and when it’s starting to brown, add your garlic.
Add the cuttlefish and after a couple of minutes add a slug of white wine, and the tomato puree or paste – varying the amounts accordingly.
Take the ink pellet from the sac and mix it up in a small glass of water to a liquid. Don’t wear anything you want to keep for Sunday best. If you get any of this sauce on you, it’s never coming out!
Add the ink mixture to your onions and cuttlefish and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
Get the pasta water boiling and salted, and about 8 minutes before you’re ready to serve, part cooking the pasta, when it’s just under al dente, take a cup of the pasta water and keep; drain and then stir in the pasta to the cuttlefish sauce.
Loosen it with some of the pasta water, the starch will combine everything and make for a smoother, better coating sauce.
Finally, season with parsley, pepper and tabasco for heat. And serve.
It’s black as pitch and shines like a dark pool in an unlit cave. It is both unsettling and hypnotising. And, it’s totally delicious.