The other night I was inspired to cook. This isn’t unusual. I’m sort of an accidental scientist in the kitchen; I love to experiment with new recipes. Usually, I’m pretty good at it. However, since becoming a mom I frequently underestimate how much time and effort some culinary procedures can take. In this case it was turning squid into calamari, and it was serious.
I started thinking about our underwater friend – so delightful when fried – at the nearby farmer’s market when I took my eighteen-month-old son Gavin on our usual loop through the seafood department to look at all the fish and ice (he’s equally fascinated by both). Encased in ice chips, squid tubes glimmered like slimy pearl sculptures and I was reminded of the house mother on my study abroad trip to Spain in college – one day she demonstrated how to take a squid tube and slice, dredge through flour, and fry it into calamari. The steps had struck me as astonishingly simple.
“I couldn’t deal with the tube,” my mom now commented from the other end of my cell phone, as I described the cooking process, and I had to admit it seemed a little…squishy. (In general I’m not squeamish, but I don’t like squishy.)
“I’ll take one pound of the pre-cut stuff,” I told the seafood vendor. I left the market proudly, assuming I had just paved the way for a quick-yet-refined dinner free of complications. (I didn’t even have to cut the tube!)
I’m still wondering what went wrong.
Maybe I should have taken my first oopsie as a warning. Before beginning my gourmet dinner project, I decided to refill our olive oil dispenser from the larger container, a heavy, barrel-like canister with an awkward opening. Although I wisely attempted this over the sink, I still unwisely managed to pour oil all down the side of the dispenser and my white shirt (I know, who cooks in white? Not me anymore).
Nonplussed, I forged ahead, distracting Gavin with various kitchen appliances, toys, and eventually Nemo, while I referenced a calamari recipe from a trusted source – my favorite culinary geek Alton Brown (see the recipe here). Then I powdered squid rings with a flour and spice mixture. This proved to be more time consuming than I’d anticipated; I hadn’t counted on the tedious nature of tending to an entire pound of squid rings (my Spanish house mother had only fried up a few).
I had just heated the oil in a sauté pan and submerged several rings when Gavin ran out of his I-can-be-entertained-by-things-that-aren’t-Mom steam, so I did what I normally do in that scenario: stood perpendicular to the stove with Gavin held away on one hip, working one-handed. If all went to plan, I would really only need one hand to direct the tongs and transport calamari from plate to pan to new plate.
I worked cautiously, flashing back to haunting memories of watching TV shows like Rescue 911 where children got showered with pans of scalding oil left carelessly on stovetops, my primary awareness on Gavin’s location in proximity to the oil. Calamari fries up in a handful of minutes so even though the cooking process now included protecting a toddler I held out hope that things would go smoothly.
But the squid rings were sticking together. And the oil started spitting and the spitting turned into lightly erupting as I held an intrigued Gavin away and waved the tongs in defense. I lowered the heat slightly and stood as far away as I could, with Gavin almost behind me, and stubbornly continued, determined that my family would have fried squid goodness for dinner.
“Bub-ble!” Gavin exclaimed over and over, trying to point around me at the quivering sauté pan that looked ready to blast off like a shuttle into space.
“Stay behind me, honey. These are dangerous bubbles.”
At this point, I was sweating and still had half the batch left to fry. I was so distracted I failed to notice the plastic garlic powder container which was off to the side, but not far enough away from the heat to avoid withering like a raisin while I toiled away over the volcanic oil, selecting squid rings one by one and gently, then insistently, shaking them free of their peers, releasing them into their hellish bubble bath, simultaneously keeping Gavin at bay.
When I finally rescued the last calamari, I sighed in relief. Anyone able to witness the scene from afar would have beheld a sweating, wild-eyed mom with an oil stain on her shirt the size of a Caribbean island, holding her curious toddler before a plate of fried calamari ranging from wet-noodle soggy to too-crisp, with oil puddled over her stove top and surrounding floor, various nests of crumpled, oil-soaked paper towels and a warped garlic powder container off to the side.
It was like I was on the warpath…except I wasn’t angry or hostile.
And it wasn’t over. Less than one minute after my husband Jon stepped in from work and whisked Gavin into a hug I poured too much liquid into the food processor; we watched as a would-be soup mixture flowed freely from the food processor’s confines and all over the counter, our mail, and phone chargers.
“Didn’t you see this?” Jon pointed to a faint line etched in the side of the food processor, after he’d rushed the heavy device to the sink. “The limit mark?”
“I see it now,” I said sullenly. We stared at each other, then burst out laughing.
“I’m firing myself,” I announced wearily, retreating to the living room with Gavin while Jon, without my asking, cleaned up the disaster I’d left in my wake. Other than posing a handful of gently-phrased but unhelpful questions like, “Why didn’t you use a bigger pot?” and “Did you melt the garlic powder?”, my wonderful husband did not act perturbed about having been thrown into disaster relief mode upon entering the house, which I will always remember and be grateful for.
As a reward, he was able to enjoy approximately three calamari rings that had, miraculously, attained the desired level of crispiness.
However, I’m taking a small break from adventurous cooking experiments. Peanut butter sandwich, anyone?