Recipe: Seared Calamari with Marjoram, Basil, and Ricotta Salata
Beautiful marjoram, the herb of love and good fortune in the Italian kitchen: I see it now on my windowsill, and it looks like it’s doing well, but I have a gnawing feeling that something bad will happen soon, that it will wither and shrink and ultimately die. I must stop thinking like this.
Herbs grow from rocks, from cracked earth, and in blazing, dry heat. Herbs even grow in the excitement and misery that is Manhattan. Herbs are ancient, their flavors unchanged from when my great-great grandparents were pulling mentuccia and fennel up on the dusty slopes of Puglia. I’ve got herbs growing high and bushy in stoop pots that are almost out on the street. This year my basil is doing well. But, as I said, the marjoram is making me anxious.
In the past I’ve wanted to honor my homegrown herbs by presenting them solo. This year, I’m not sure why, I’m more interested in combining their flavors. It’s exciting to see how blending two or more herbs changes them, creating a new taste. That certainly happened when I added both basil and marjoram to my sautéed calamari. The marjoram tempered the base note of clove in the basil (basil and clove share a common aromatic oil), and the basil suppressed some of the marjoram’s floral tones, leaving it tasting more like its cousin oregano, but without oregano’s harshness. Oregano, usually dried, and basil are a common enough Southern Italian combo, and the taste of this calamari reminds me of many dishes from my childhood. Substituting marjoram and letting it mingle with basil gives me the flavor memory I want, but updated, making it, in my opinion, a little bit better.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds small calamari, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
1 stalk summer garlic, sliced
1 whole star anise
A tiny splash of dry vermouth
About 6 canned San Marzano tomatoes, well chopped and very well drained
6 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, cut into strips
About ½ cup crumbled ricotta Salata
Choose a large, heavy bottomed pan, and get it hot over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When that’s hot, add the calamari, spreading it out to cover the pan. Add the garlic and the star anise. Season with salt and black pepper, and sauté quickly, about a minute.
Add the vermouth, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and cook at a lively bubble just to take off their raw edge, about 2 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the marjoram, basil, and about a tablespoon of the ricotta salata, stirring everything to blend. Taste for seasoning. Drizzle with a thread of fresh olive oil.
Pour the calamari into a wide serving dish, and top with the remaining ricotta salata. Serve with garlic bruschetta brushed with olive oil.