The sunshine and soft breezes of summer beckoned Rory and me to drive to Carmel for lunch the other day. Carmel-by-the-Sea (the official name) is a picture-nearly-perfect town on the Monterey Bay. It’s a major tourist attraction that attracts bus-loads of visitors. People come from all over the world to marvel at the dramatic seaside, pricey custom homes and lush landscaping. It’s California and Europe blended together in one very wealthy enclave. Clint Eastwood was mayor for years.
Admittedly, we find the clean beauty of Carmel to be bit boring, but once or twice a year, we romantically look at each other and say, "Let’s go to Carmel." We succumb to the charm that coats the little town like fondant on a wedding cake. We splurge on a luxuriously long meal. We eat lots of fried food, drink a bottle of wine and then sober up by walking around the town before we drive home. (Watch the 90-minute parking if you go and move your car!)
This time around, among the things we ordered at an Italian restaurant was fried squid coated in semolina. The Monterey Bay, where Carmel is located, is known for its supply of fresh squid but it wasn’t squid season. I should have known better. The squid was beautifully fried to a chewy, soft crisp but was tasteless. The vaguely tart-sweet tomato sauce was too heavy of an accompaniment to the delicate squid. We were dissatisfied. No Tabasco in sight. The lemon didn’t do much to create the exciting highs and lows of Vietnamese fried squid.
Once home, I felt compelled to right the culinary wrong by frying up some squid myself. A while back, Candy in Indiana sent me her muc chien (pronounced "mook chee-an") recipe that she swears by, and I’d been meaning to try it out. She often makes this dish to wow her friends, a number of whom are Vietnamese-Americans. Candy sent a snapshot of her tasty creation that’s on the right here.
Since it wasn’t squid season locally, I thawed a package of frozen squid that I’d purchased at an Asian market as an experiment. The squid came from Vietnam and was pricier (around $2.50) than other brands — a good sign that reflects quality. Small squid tubes and tentacles too. Once thawed, there was a nice fresh briny fragrance that’s often lacking in other frozen squid. (My husband discarded the blue label before I could snap a photo of it for you. Sorry.) The 14-ounce package had about 18 squid with their tentacles on a small Styrofoam tray in Cryovac; once thawed an drained, there was just 9 1/2 ounces.
Candy’s recipe, which is based on one presented in Nicole Routhier’s Foods of Vietnam (Stuart, Tabori and Chang, 1989), worked exceptionally well. The crisp squid (coated by cornstarch) had nice hints of fresh dill, garlic, and savoriness from nuoc mam. The nuoc cham dipping sauce, wiht its chiles, garlic, and lime, was the perfect match.
Squid frying tips
Keep the following in mind for this recipe:
- Hidden moisture is the culprit behind squid popping hot oil during frying. Do your best to remove excess moisture from the raw squid.
- If you’re new to deep frying, get organized and the clean up won’t be bad. Line the floor around the stove with newspaper to make things easier. Strain the oil through a paper towel-lined mesh strainer so you can reuse the oil.
- You fry twice here and frankly, you can fry trice (three times) if the squid isn’t as crisp as you like.
- Have a buddy help out because this is fast frying. You can pause for a bit (I didn’t try this but my guess is about 15 minutes) between the first and second frying.
- Have some ventilation going (the kitchen exhaust fan or a fan) to circulate the air, which will become filled with the smell of deep fried squid.
- If the tentacles get tangled, untangle them before coating. The crispy tentacles are my personal favorite when eating fried squid.
Serves 4 as a snack
14 to 16 fresh, uncleaned squid with bodies about 4 or 5-inches long, or 8 to 10 ounces cleaned squid, with tentacles preferred (fresh or thawed)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, feathery tops only
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons fish sauce
¼ generous teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
½ cup cornstarch or tapioca starch
Canola or corn oil for deep frying
1 recipe Nuoc Cham dipping sauce made with garlic and chiles, and/or 3 or 4 lime wedges
1. If using fresh, uncleaned squid, clean the squid and peel off the skin. Discard the head but reserve the tentacles, and make sure the guts are emptied by scraping on the squid tube with the spine of a knife.
If using pre-cleaned or thawed squid, check each one for any remaining quills in the squid tube. Regardless, put the cleaned squid in a colander, rinse under lots of running water (use some salt if the squid needs a bit of the briny sea), and drain.
Pat gently with paper towel to remove excess moisture. The squid should stick to the paper towel. Removing moisture lessens the drama during deep frying.
2. Cut the squid into rings. (If the squid tubes are small (about the size and length of your thumb or smaller, cut tube in half lengthwise.) If the cut squid still seems moist, repeat patting with paper towels. The less moisture there is, the better.
3. Put the squid (rings and tentacles) in a bowl or on a plate along with the dill, garlic, fish sauce and black pepper. Use your fingers to combine well. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
4. Put the cornstarch on a dinner plate or shallow bowl and place near the stove. Have a plate lined with paper towel for draining the squid. Pour the oil into a wok or 5-quart Dutch oven to a depth of 2 inches and heat to 365 F. To reduce messy clean-up, I cover the floor space immediately around the stove with a few sheets of newspaper.
5. Add the squid to the cornstarch (or tapioca starch) and toss with your fingers to coat well. (Do this in batches if it seems unwieldy.) Pick up the squid and shake off excess cornstarch. Sometime it helps to put the squid into a mesh strainer and shake it around. Place on a clean dry plate or, if the oil is ready, gently drop the squid into the hot oil. Fry about 1/3 to ½ at a time.
Fry for about 45 seconds to seal the coating on the squid and turn it pale yellow. Use a skimmer to transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. (Expect the oil to cloud up during frying.)
6. Then, increase the heat on the oil to about 375 F and refry. Again, do this in batches. Fry for 30 to 45 seconds until golden and crisp. Transfer to the paper-towel lined plate to drain. Serve hot with the Nuoc Cham and/or wedges of lime.