Musings on la cucina povera by the late, great Neapolitan actor Eduardo De Filippo, recalled and written by his wife, Isabella Quarantotti, in 2001.
For the past month I’ve been teaching a class in recession cooking, Italian-style of course, focusing on the philosophy of cucina povera cooking from Southern Italy (see my notice over on the right for class times and subjects). This has steered me toward a lot of play with stale bread, anchovies, squid, pork liver, pork fat, cheese rinds, tripe, and others of the ingredients my ancestors used for centuries to create some of the most elegant and delicious food on the planet.
I’ve been finding really nice local spinach at my Greenmarket, so I stuffed some inside the cheap, humongous squid I found at Citarella, squid that was really too big for anything other than a leisurely braise. It’s a good dish, Sicilian in flavor, fun to cook, and inexpensive for sure (and if you buy the squid uncleaned it’s even cheaper and, it goes without saying, much more fun).
Calamari Stuffed with Spinach and Currants and Braised in Marsala
(Serves 4 as a main course)
4 cups fresh greenmarket spinach (or 1 big supermarket bag), well-stemmed
2 pounds medium to large squid, cleaned and left whole, the tentacles well chopped (you’ll need only about ½ cup of chopped tentacles)
⅓ cup whole, blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped, plus a handful for garnish
¼ cup currants, plumped up in a tablespoon of Marsala
1 garlic clove, minced, plus 1 clove peeled and lightly crushed
2 tablespoons homemade dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
1/4 cup grated grana Padano cheese
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
The grated zest of 1 small lemon
1 large egg
5 scrapings of fresh nutmeg
Extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of toothpicks
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¾ cup dry Marsala
½ cup chicken broth or light fish broth, or possibly a little more
A squeeze of lemon juice
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped
Set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the spinach. Blanch for about 2 minutes. Drain the spinach into a colander, and run cold water over it to stop the cooking and to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water out of it as possible, and then chop it well.
Place the spinach in a medium bowl. Add the squid tentacles, the almonds, the currants, the minced garlic, breadcrumbs, thyme, grana Padano, lemon zest, and the egg. Season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Add a drizzle of olive oil, and mix everything well.
Using a teaspoon, fill the squid about three-quarters full with the spinach mixture, and close the ends with a toothpick (if you overstuff the squid it may break open when cooking, since it shrinks quite a bit).
In a large skillet (one that will hold the squid in one layer), heat the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the squid and the garlic clove, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté, turning the pieces once with tongs, until they’re lightly golden, about 4 minutes. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a minute. Add the broth, cover the skillet, and turn the heat down to very low. Let the squid cook at a very gentle simmer for about 30 to 35 minutes, turning it once or twice. Check the skillet a few times during cooking to make sure there is at least an inch of liquid in the skillet. If necessary add a splash of broth or hot water.
Give the squid a poke with a thin, sharp knife to see if it’s tender (the knife should pierce it easily). Let it cook a bit longer if it’s not. When it’s tender, take the squid from the skillet, and slice the pieces on an angle into thick rings. Place the squid on a warmed serving platter, and scatter the parsley on top. Add the lemon juice to the skillet sauce, stirring to blend it in. Reheat the sauce briefly if necessary. Adjust the seasoning with a pinch of salt if needed, and pour the sauce over the squid (if bits of stuffing have drifted into the sauce, you may strain it first, if you like). Give everything a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and scatter on the remaining toasted almonds. Serve hot. I served this with fregola mixed with a handful of spring peas that I sautéed in onion, but a small pasta such as orzo tossed with Italian parsley and good olive oil would be marvelous as well.