Spain restaurant, on West 13th Street, opened in 1966 and still going strong.
Recipe below: Calamari Filled with Pine Nuts and Raisins, in a Saffron White Wine Sauce
I just finished reading a book called Grape Olive Pig, by Matt Goulding, a memoir of his intimate (he married a Catalunyan) and culinary experiences in Spain and also a history of the country’s diverse regions, focusing on the land, the sea, the oppression, the creativity, and how the Spanish people produced their passionate culture, one I’m in awe of.
Somehow this fine book got me thinking about how lucky I was to grow up in New York, exposed to so many different cultures, tasting an amazing variety of food at a young age. Aside from enjoying the Southern Italian dishes that emerged from our own kitchen, we often went out to eat Greek, Romanian, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Jewish dairy (not too many of those places left), Scandinavian, German, Soul Food, Turkish. My first boyfriend came from a Russian Orthodox family. His mother’s stuffed cabbage, bathed in an ivory colored cream sauce, seemed so exotic. I can still recall the sweet bitter flavor (dill, I’m thinking), and the angular beauty of my boyfriend’s mom as she brought it and other fascinating dishes to the table, such as a boozy homemade cherry preserve that drove me wild.
My Irish Grandmother worked as a waitress in a Syrian restaurant, and my Sicilian grandfather supplied that restaurant with grape leaves they used for stuffing. He grew wine grapes in their tiny backyard and had plenty of sturdy leaves to spare. This restaurant was called Nader’s and was run by Ralph Nader’s parents. They were into food. The son, not so much, but he certainly was, and still is, passionate about other things. When I first started working in restaurants myself, my first chef had me making French blood sausage and animelles—beef testicles—flaming in cognac. (He also had me skinning rabbits, which was horrifying.) At another restaurant I learned how to cook Northern Italian food, which, as a granddaughter of the Mezzogiorno, I found as foreign as the cooking of Mongolia.
After reading Grape Olive Pig, I’ve had Spanish flavors swirling around my brain. There’s a Spanish restaurant in Chelsea a few blocks from my apartment that serves a squid ink paella that was completely new to me. It’s nothing more than a thin layer of crisp-bottomed, black-tinted rice with tender squid rings baked on top. It’s absolutely addictive. The place is called Socarrat, a word for the crunchy baked-on rice at the bottom of a paella pan. The Spanish actually have a word for that. Amazing. Socarrat is a far cry from the gummy-paella-and-over-sugared-Sangria places I frequented as a kid. A few of those places still exist downtown. I have a deep nostalgia for them, and I still stop in every so often. The food is exactly the same, frozen in time.
So right now I want to cook with saffron, pimenton de La Vera, piment d’Espelette, crustaceans, cephalopods, and pork fat. I ate a tenderly cooked stuffed squid dish about two dozen years ago at a Basque-inspired restaurant near the United Nations. I recall that it contained raisins and pine nuts, and its oily, winey sauce was tinted orange from saffron. I find it difficult to duplicate a dish after so many years, but I nonetheless like to try, as a kind of puzzle to solve. So here’s my interpretation of that memorable dish. I’ve added basil, which, I’m sure wasn’t in the original, but I like basil with saffron (I can’t recall any herb; maybe there was parsley). My version is not exact, but it’s close, and it tastes good, and, most important, it’s spiritually real.
Calamari Filled with Pine Nuts and Raisins, in a Saffron White Wine Sauce
2 pounds squid, on the small side, cleaned, with the tentacles
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 scallions, finely chopped, using a little of the tender green part
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
⅓ cup pine nuts
⅓ cup yellow raisins, soaked in ¼ cup dry white wine
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
1 heaping tablespoon grated, young manchego cheese
1 jumbo egg, lightly beaten
Piment d’Espelette, to taste
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 8 basil leaves, chopped, plus a few nice looking smaller ones for garnish
½ cup light fish broth or chicken broth (I prefer chicken broth here)
A big pinch of saffron threads, dried over a low heat if moist and then finely ground
½ cup dry white wine
Chop the squid tentacles finely. You’ll need about ¾ cup.
In a medium sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the tentacles, scallion, garlic, and pine nuts, and sauté until the squid is just cooked through and the pine nuts are starting to turn golden, about a minute. Add the raisins with their soaking wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat, and take the pan off the burner. Add the breadcrumbs, the manchego, and the egg, and season with salt, piment, cinnamon, and the basil. Drizzle in a little fresh olive oil, and give it all a quick mix.
Add the saffron to the broth, and give it a stir so it starts to dissolve.
Dry off the squid bodies, and fill them about ¾ high with the stuffing, trying not to pack it in too densely. Close up the openings with toothpicks.
In a large sauté pan that’ll hold all the squid without crowding, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Season the squid with a little salt, and lay it in the pan. Sauté, turning the pieces once, until they’ve lost their transparent look and hopefully taken on a little color, about 2 minutes (sometimes it’s hard to get any browning on sautéed squid; don’t worry too much about that). Now add the white wine and the saffron broth. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer, turning occasionally, until the squid is tender, about ½ hour.
Remove the toothpicks, and slice the squid into thick rings, laying it out on four dinner plates (you can also leave the pieces whole, if you prefer). Distribute the pan sauce over the servings, and garnish with basil leaves and a sprinkling of piment. I served this with crusty country bread and followed it with an escarole salad.