After several false dawns, it’s finally looking good for a bit of spring. As I write, the magnolia trees which are normally over by now, are just creeping into flower and the wild garlic is out in its gloriously stinky leaf. The plants are not the only ones suffering with the long cold winter. The easterly wind that seems to have been blowing for ever has had an effect on the fishing industry with a decrease in the number of fish being caught and increased demand and prices for all. This has meant an interesting few months for our fish courses and the choice of fish we use. We work very closely with Dartmouth fishmonger Mark Lobb who has been bringing us some more unusual fish in addition to some of our normal delivery.
Squid, which is always popular on our courses, has increased in price significantly so we have been working with the wonderful cuttlefish. Possibly better known for the cuttle bone we feed to budgies, it looks incredibly exotic (with green blood, 3 hearts and W-shaped pupils) but is caught in number out in Start Bay. Most of the catch is exported to Spain where it is relished along with all other seafood.
The cuttle has the ability to camouflage itself to its surroundings and can be incredibly aggressive to other fish, cuttles and divers. It comes with an awful lot of viscous black ink to squirt out when predated – imagine dropping a large jar of black treacle and you’re getting close. This is used in making black pasta and risotto and was originally used as a dye and for black and white photography. If you can work your way past the ink (disposable plastic gloves are very handy….), you’ll end up with a firm bright white flesh from the body and the tentacles. As it’s thicker than the flesh from the squid, we cut it into very thin strips and flash fry it to have with homemade mayonnaise like calamari.
Another way (and I think better) is to slow braise it for 2-3 hours until it is meltingly tender. This is a really unusual way of cooking fish - normally we cook fish very quickly at high temperatures but the cuttlefish responds really well to low temperatures absorbing lots of flavours as it cooks. We have successfully tried it with a Mediterranean sauce full of punchy flavours such as olives, anchovies, capers, garlic and red wine. This was so good I decided to curry it in the southern Indian flavours of tamarind, coriander, cumin and coconut. This was equally good so definitely one to try at home. One of the good things about the cuttlefish is it doesn’t fall apart in the sauce and even takes on the texture of a slow cooked pork dish. Another great thing is it can happily cook away with no attention for several hours without ruining and it reheats very well. A winner on many fronts!
If you need to clean the cuttle fish yourself, follow these guidelines –
1. Pull the tentacles away from the body taking the insides with it
2. Lay the tentacles and innards flat on a board and cut with a sharp knife between the eyes and the tentacles. Keep the tentacles and discard the rest.
3. Cut the long tentacles into thirds and cut each tentacle away from the others – they look like a hula-hula skirt so if you think of it like that, you’re cutting each tentacle off the waistband of the skirt.
4. Go back to the head and pull off the wings. Pull off any membrane and discard and cut the wings into centimetre strips.
5. Open up the body with a sharp knife and use the back of the knife to scrape out any goop. Pick out the cuttle bone and discard. Pull off any internal membrane.
6. Lightly score the inside surface of the flesh into tiny diamonds with a sharp knife. To do this, score the flesh on the diagonal in lines ½cm apart and then do it the other way to make a diamond pattern.
7. Then cut the flesh all the way through into 1cm strips.
8. Wash the strips from the body and the wings along with the tentacles until clean and then they’re ready to use.
Southern Indian Cuttle Fish Curry
• 1 medium red or white onion, peeled and thinly sliced
• 2tbsp sunflower oil
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded, deveined and finely chopped
• 1tsp ground cumin
• 1tbsp ground coriander
• 1tsp turmeric powder
• 1tbsp tamarind paste
• 1 x 400ml coconut milk
• 60g dessicated coconut
• Chicken stock
• 2 cuttlefish, (about 25cm in length) cleaned and cut into 1cm strips
• 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
1. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onion, garlic and chillies. Stir fry over a high heat until they start to soften – about 3-4 minutes.
2. Add the spices and cook for another 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, tamarind paste and dessicated coconut and cuttlefish pieces.
3. Add enough stock to cover the cuttlefish and bring to the boil.
4. Turn the heat down and simmer with a lid on until meltingly tender – about 2 hours.
5. Sprinkle over the chopped fresh coriander and serve with basmati rice and mango chutney.•