Moonlighting: Squid are caught at night; the fishing boats in photo
above were at work off of the Pacific Grove shoreline. Drawing of
market squid by Bambi Edlund. Photo by Darrell Robinson
Once Monterey stopped canning sardines in the 1960s, it quickly earned another moniker: “Calamari Capital of the World.” Yet, today, as part of a fast-food nation that prefers fish sticks to squid tubes, we seem to have lost our connection with the 10-armed cephalopod the rest of the world craves.
Bright lights will again illuminate our bay at night when the season opens in April, bringing local boats out in force to lure market squid from the depths, much as they did when the fishery began in the 1860s. Squid is still the second largest (counted in tons) fishery in California, but the majority of the commercial catch is exported, primarily to Asia. Even some of those boxes of squid stamped “Monterey Bay Calamari” contain a dirty little secret: The squid was caught here, of course, but shipped to China for cleaning, processing and freezing, before being loaded on a container ship for the long trip back home.
Despite that large carbon footprint—along with a few concerns about bycatch and habitat damage—market squid is considered a “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which rates the sustainability of fish by where and how it is caught.
Buying directly from a local source is the most sustainable purchasing decision, and leads to a fresher, better-tasting squid.
Over-processing is the worst thing one can do to fresh squid, according to Kevin Phillips, managing partner at Abalonetti Bar & Grill on Fisherman’s Wharf, known for 60 years as the place for calamari. Phillips buys only fresh local squid and hires a full-time employee to clean 1,000 pounds of it a week in a room behind the restaurant. “It’s the freshest squid available anywhere, and the flavor [of squid shipped to China and back] doesn’t compare,” says Phillips, who adds imported squid is rinsed too thoroughly and is often bleached, so the delicate seafood loses its natural brininess. “It’s sad to see much of our local squid shipped away.”
Only four Monterey Bay processing plants remain as part of the region’s 150-year-old market squid fishery—first run, ironically, by Chinese fishermen.
Sal Tringali, a third-generation squid processor at Salinas-based Monterey Fish Co., finds it distressing to see most locals shun the inexpensive and healthful seafood.
“People today don’t know what they’re missing,” says Tringali, wistful for the days when the town celebrated squid, particularly at the now-defunct Monterey Squid Festival.
From its commercial store on Municipal Wharf No. 2, Monterey Fish Co. sells whole market squid for about $1 a pound, the same price seen in the 1970s, Tringali says. Cooking squid requires proper timing. Phillips adheres to the adage of cooking it very quickly (no more than 2 minutes) at high heat or else for an hour or more in a slow braise. “Anything in between, and it’s tough,” he says.
At the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gourmet Alley pyro-chefs cook squid Sicilian style, with flames leaping from giant pans. Event organizers have released a less-incendiary recipe that calls for 3 pounds of squid, cleaned and cut into rings (tentacles reserved). In a large skillet, heat 1/3 cup of olive oil at high heat. Add calamari and 1 tablespoon crushed garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Lower heat, add 1/4 cup white sherry and squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the pan, dropping in the rind. Sprinkle some basil, oregano and red pepper flakes into the pan, and stir in your favorite marinara. Bring up to desired temperature and serve.
“The Italian community eats squid all the time,” says Tringali.
“We call it poor man’s abalone. It’s very important to us, and we all grew up eating it. It’s comfort food.”