Good 'N Plenty: The Untapped Potential of Boston Squid
Eloise Fox - January 6th, 2014
As chefs continue to push sustainability efforts, occasionally the well-intended efforts for “locally sourced” can misfire and quickly turn to “over sourced.” Sometimes, however, a plentiful supply of a valuable ingredient lies underfoot, unused due to cheaper supply or processing overseas. Case in point: the Boston squid.
Boston squid has many aliases. Loligo squid. Winter squid. Longfin Inshore squid. Whatever you choose to call them, the cephalopods are found anywhere from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Venezuela and are mainly caught off the coasts of Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Local chefs claim they make for extraordinarily good eating when prepared fresh, but these days, most Americans are unlikely to encounter them.
That's because, despite the healthy quantities of Boston squid caught in the United States—commercial harvests clocked in at 28.1 million pounds in 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration Fisheries—the vast majority of it ends up frozen and processed overseas. Its final destination: your neighborhood bar, reduced to gummy rings of gray calamari. Or, worse, in roadside shops as fishing bait.
“People are just generally very narrow-minded when it comes to seafood, and it leads to them missing out on all the good stuff we have to offer,” says Jared Auerbach, the owner of Red's Best, a Boston-based seafood distributor. Auerbach's company works with a plethora of small-scale, owner-run fishing operations passionate about sustainability. “Fresh squid tastes awesome, and almost nobody values it. Almost nobody uses it. And they should.”
At a time when many species of fish and seafood are being overfished, Boston squid populations are robust. Auerbach believes that eating more of them (and other species of squid) could relieve pressures placed on other fisheries. It would reduce the need for shipping them over long distances and reduce the process' hefty carbon footprint, too. And it would benefit the American fishermen and women who catch them.
“The fact is that China can produce squid way cheaper than what it costs an American fisherman to catch squid,” Auerbach says. By his estimates, the cost is about 40 to 50 percent less expensive. “The answer is that consumers have to demand it.”
Robert Phalen, the chef and partner of One Eared Stag in Atlanta, is particularly fond of the ingredient. “I like it personally because it’s a fresh product,” he says. “It's sustainable. It’s from Boston. It's chem-free. And because of that, there are no preservatives.”
Phalen prepares squid several ways, but the simplest is on a grill, topped with flying fish roe and served with black garlic/tahini puree. On the opposite end of the two minute or two hour rule, he'll stuff the squid with chorizo and braise them in tomato sauce.
Understandably, Phalen isn’t so excited by calamari any more, feeling that the dish is played out at this point. But he does allow fried squid in his squid po’ boy, topped with garlic puree and caramelized onions.
Boston squid finds another advocate in chef Barton Seaver, an outspoken proponent of seafood sustainability. “When squid is treated well, it can be one of the most beguiling and delicious things out of the ocean,” he says. The purplish skin is porous, Seaver continues, which allows for a splendidly thorough absorption of flavors—a characteristic he tries to take advantage of when preparing them. “When roasted over a hot charcoal grill, the squid becomes wonderfully smoky with an appealing, just-barely chewy texture. Alternatively, Boston squid marinated in garlic and olive oil is magnificent when seared in the Spanish tradition, on a plancha and under the weight of a heavy brick.”
Seaver has served as executive chef in several kitchens, notably Café Saint-Ex, Hook, and Blue Ridge in Washington, D.C., and at each, he brings his go-to dish of wood-grilled fresh squid over a frisée salad with warm green beans, potatoes, and basil pesto. It was so popular at Café Saint-Ex that Seaver's daily order of 20 to 25 pounds of fresh squid arriving at 2 p.m. would be 86'ed by 10 p.m.
“It's as close as I ever came as a chef to creating the ultimate 'craveable dish,' according to my customers,” Seaver muses, “and that's the definition of success.”