Recipe: Warm Calamari Salad with Cecis and Mentuccia
You know how when you taste something that seems familiar, but not quite, it stirs a flavor memory but you can’t zero in on why? This has happened to me often in Italy. Mentuccia, a kind of wild mint I first tasted in Sicily, is one of those things that on first tasting have made me think, “Oh yes, that,” and then after absorbing their essence I’ve realized I actually never tasted them before.
My first experience with mentuccia was as a flavoring for braised artichokes. I assumed it was some unusual type of oregano, but as I let the fresh herb open up on my palate, I tasted spearmint and marjoram, with a touch of summer savory in the background. It held shadows of my father’s beloved oregano, his pizza herb, but it was gentler and more complex. It’s strange how mentuccia brings up memories of my childhood without having been part of the Italian-American kitchen.
Mentuccia, also known as nepitella, grows wild throughout the Mezzogiorno and in Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, and Sardinia. Roman cooks traditionally use it to flavor artichokes, as do Sicilians. In Tuscany it’s used with mushrooms to produce a deep, wild earth flavor. Italians also like it in lamb and pork dishes, and with tomatoes. Oddly, I’ve never seen it scattered over a pizza.
This summer I planted mentuccia for the first time. I didn’t think it existed here, but when I did some research I found it goes by the name calamint in the English-speaking world, and soon I noticed it for sale at my Greenmarket, where it had been all along. I bought two plants and stuck them in my stoop pots. The stuff has taken off like the wild, inventive thing it is, its tiny dark green leaves filling up every available space between the petunias and the tarragon. And its taste is exactly how I remember it from my first time, in Sicily. I have been playing around with it in my kitchen. I wanted to pair it with chickpeas, I think because I associate summer savory, which it brings to mind, with dried beans. If you don’t have mentuccia, try a mix of marjoram, mint, and summer savory or thyme.
Next up, mentuccia pizza. Stay tuned.
A big handful of chicory or frisée, torn into pieces
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon pimenton de La Vera (a smoked Spanish paprika that comes in several heat strengths; mine is only slightly spicy)
A big pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cooked chickpeas, drained and dried
1 long red peperoncino, cut into rings
2 scallions, thinly sliced, using some of the tender green
1 pound small calamari, cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 fresh summer garlic clove, thinly sliced
The grated zest from 1 small lemon, plus some of its juice
A palmful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked and drained
8 large sprigs mentuccia, the leaves lightly chopped
Set out a large, nice looking salad bowl. Add the chicory or frisée.
Mix the allspice, cumin, pimenton, and sugar together in a small bowl.
In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chickpeas, the peperoncino, the scallions, half of the spice mix, and a little salt. Sauté quickly, just until the chili softens and gives off an aroma and the chickpeas take on a little crunch. Add this to the salad bowl.
Without cleaning out the skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and turn the heat to high. When the pan’s really hot, add the calamari, the garlic, the lemon zest, the rest of the herb mix, the breadcrumbs, and a little salt. Sear the calamari quickly, just until it’s opaque and tender and the breadcrumbs are crisp. Add all this to the salad bowl, along with the capers and the mentuccia.
Drizzle on about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil and about half as much lemon juice. Season with a bit more salt, and toss. Serve right away.