I saw some of those baby squid – the ones about 3-4″ long that come with a bunch of tentacles tucked into their bodies – and I thought, “Why not?”. So I got them.
Now, streaky bacon works with scallops, so I thought “Why not with squid?”. So I got some.
The idea was to fry some of the bacon until it had exuded a decent amount of fat, then turn up the heat and fry the squid in it. It worked, up to a point, but then the squid started exuding water, and more water, and more water still, and the frying turned into boiling. Boiled bacon.
Turning up the heat didn’t help. It still boiled, just more vigorously. Drying the squid thoroughly beforehand didn’t help either.
Pouring off the surplus liquid seemed a cheat, and besides I was afraid that a lot of flavour would be poured away with it.
Then I had an idea: don’t pour the liquid away, absorb it. To me, “absorb” means “rice”. And so the story begins. If I’m telling it now it’s because so many friends have asked me for the recipe. (Though one should always remember P.G. Wodehouse: “But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.” “Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”)
Squid (about 400g)
Rice (about 120g)
A bunch of salad onions.
A pepper (a contrasting colour to the chillies).
A couple of chillies.
Pull the tentacley bits out of the squid bags, and slice the bags into rings half an inch or a quarter of an inch thick. Slice the onions, the pepper, and the chillies.
Cook the rice. I put it with twice its volume of boiling water and half a stock cube (partly for the seasoning and partly because it’s a reliable way of getting the right amount of salt), bring it to the boil and simmer it very gently until the water has been absorbed.
Cook the vegetables, frying them gently – sweating them, really – with a little butter. Salt them a little to help the process.
All this can be done in advance. Now comes the dynamic bit.
Fry the bacon in a big frying pan. It can be streaky bacon, or pancetta, or lardons. It may require a little oil to get it going. Once it is cooked and has exuded as much fat as it’s going to, turn the heat up as far as it will go and chuck the squid in and watch it writhe.
A certain amount of water will come out at this stage. When all the water has come out and some of it is beginning to evaporate (or, alternatively, when it looks as if there’s going to be no end to it), add all the rice and stir it in. Continue stirring as the water is absorbed and a delicious crusty deposit forms at the edges of the frying pan, made of squid juices and the salt from the bacon.
Turn off the heat, stir in the vegetables (stir for a minute or so if they were prepared a while ago and got cold), season with a little black pepper, and serve.
This will feed three polite people, two normal ones, or one greedy cook.
Mistakes to avoid
Occasionally, like Bertie Wooster’s check suit, this dish does not work. Mostly when you really, really want it to. Here are a few possible reasons:
- Not salting the rice. You’d think there was enough salt in the bacon and the squid but there isn’t. Rice, unsalted, tastes of NOTHING.
- Using the middle-sized 5-6″ squid that come as bags only. They have the texture of thick white blotting paper. Frying them makes no difference to their overwhelming sogginess and they can absorb any flavour at all and nullify it completely.
- Overcooking the rice. Enough said.
- Serving it to a Valencian. Valencians are born with a silver squid in their mouths. They are not as tolerant and easy-going as other Spaniards. They are not as careless about correctness as the Germans or the Swiss. Give them this dish and you will hear dark mutterings in which the word “paella” is faintly audible. (Though actually I have eaten some bad paellas in my time).
But get it right and you’ll wish you weren’t serving it to your friends; because without them, there’d be more of it for you.