I Just got back from Marseille. I had been hearing Alice Waters carry on about the town for so long, I knew I’d get there eventually. And I did love it, the shining water at the port, the sweet smell and yelling at the fish market, the garlic, the way too much lavender in and on everything, the harissa in huge tins. But most of all I loved all the small independently run restaurants and shops. I saw places that were half consignment shop, half lunch place, that offered well tossed salads and tartines topped with grilled sardines and mesclun, or a café with a scattering of outdoor tables where you could drink rosé wine (or pastis if you like) and eat olives, and smoke, and after an hour or so decide to order a dish of cuttlefish persillade or steak tartare, or just another couple of rosés. Of course, Manhattan doesn’t have much of this intimacy going on anymore. It was almost heartbreaking to see how effortlessly it’s done in Marseille, or at least looks to be. What is with a city where a 25-seat, trendy bistro can be open only three nights a week? A mystery.
I went to two pizza places while I was there, Chez Vincent and Chez Etienne, both Marseille institutions. Each time I ordered an anchovy pizza, and both came with fresh tomato sauce and a sprinkling of herbes de Provence. I just love that so much. At Chez Etienne, it and a cheese pizza were the only options. Interesting. And at both places a dish of cuttlefish persillade was offered, a popular dish all over town, it seems. I got that both places, too. Chez Etienne’s version was particularly enticing. It was obviously flash-cooked, with garlic, parsley, and possibly a dusting of flour added at the end. The thickness of the cuttlefish made the dish really seductive, an opulent change from run-of-the-mill squid. It wasn’t sautéed exactly, but more something between a high- heat sauté and a fry, yet without any heavy coating. It was so good. I knew I’d try my hand at it when I got home.
I don’t cook cuttlefish much. The fish guys at my Greenmarket have local squid, so I almost always go for that. But I do see cuttlefish in shops, so I picked some up. They’ve got a strange rubbery feel. Very solid. They’re much thicker-bodied than squid and don’t flop around much. Look for smaller cuttlefish, which are more tender. That’s what the cooks in Marseille use.
Cuttlefish are a bit chewy even if you take the utmost care with them, but for me that’s part of their appeal. I notice that no one cuts them into rings, as you do squid. Instead they slice thin strips or small cubes. I imagine rings would cook up too tough. I liked the look and texture of the thin strips, so I went with those.
I had a hard time getting that fry-sauté result. I think the pizza places use a lot of oil and then maybe scoop the cuttlefish out of the pan with a slotted spoon or something. I chose less oil and really high heat. It came out a bit different but still nice. I think quite nice.
For a low-carb alternative, instead of following the cuttlefish with an anchovy pizza (although you must experience that sometime), try this salad. Escarole has a substantial feel to it, making it, to my thinking, a solid second course. And the vinaigrette is rich with mustard and cream, a good way to keep to your low-carb plan without sacrificing the little indulgences that are so important for your spirit.
Seared Cuttlefish with Gremolata, and Escarole Salad with Mustard Cream and Pine Nuts
For the gremolata:
The grated zest from 2 lemons, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible
2 garlic cloves, minced
About a dozen large sprigs of flat leaf parsley, the leaves well chopped
6 large sprigs thyme, the leaves well chopped
A big pinch of sugar
For the cuttlefish:
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds cuttlefish, cleaned (if yours have ink sacks, reserve the ink, which you can freeze, for a pasta or risotto dish)
1 heaping tablespoon finely ground breadcrumbs
A few big scrapings of fresh nutmeg
For the salad:
1 large head escarole, torn into small pieces
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon champagne or white wine vinegar
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A palmful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
Cut the cuttlefish in two lengthwise. Then, working widthwise, cut into thin strips. You should end up with a big pile of half moons. Dry it all well.
Mix all the ingredients for the gremolata together in a small bowl.
Set a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. When hot, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it heat through. Add the cuttlefish, spreading it out and seasoning it well with salt and pepper. Scatter on the gremolata, the breadcrumbs, and the nutmeg, and let everything sear for a minute or so without moving it around at all. Now shake the pan a few times so everything gets gently tossed. Sauté for about a minute or so longer, just to cook the cuttlefish through and crisp up the crumbs and the garlic. The pan should be fairly dry with a bit of crust on the bottom. Give the bottom of the pan a big scrape with a wooden spoon, and turn the cuttlefish out onto a serving platter. Serve hot, with lemon wedges if you like.
You can prep the salad and the vinaigrette beforehand, but dress it right before serving, which should ideally be after the cuttlefish. To make the salad, put the escarole in a large salad bowl. Scatter on the shallots. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, cream, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking to form an emulsion. Pour that over the salad, and toss well. Scatter on the pine nuts.