A cuttlefish dish

Black as night

By
March 12, 2013

Black food isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m talking about food that is truly black — not dark brown or blue or purple, but black. Many French people I know in southern France will not indulge in black food. C’est noir, they will say, as if they have proposed an objection of obvious merit.

But we do eat and adore many dark foods. The rich purple hues of beet-filled borscht, for example, or the beetroot salads that can be found on any classical assiette de crudités in France. Coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, with their long-cooked wine sauces, are dark reddish brown. (Grilled foods are sometimes blackened, but that’s just on the outside.) Mexican mole sauces can be almost black in their velvety, chocolaty richness; the same is true of chocolate sauces and coffee and colas. But their colors speak more of deep browns and coppery highlighted hues than the deep blue-black colors of an all-absorbent black.

What truly inky black food do we place in front of ourselves as a source of contemplation, salivation, temptation, and anticipation? For the indisputable raven-haired beauty in the food department, I can think of only one striking example: cuttlefish, when prepared and immersed in its very own ink.

A painting by Meredith Escudier’s husband, Jean-Pierre.

Fished from the Mediterranean and available on the market chez Brigitte in Pézenas, cuttlefish-not-forgetting-the-ink-sac must be specially requested: “Des seiches, s’il vous plaît, AVEC leur encre.” Only then will Brigitte set about procuring the oft-neglected ink.

As an experienced fishmonger, she fully understands that not everyone wishes to deal with the messiness involved in emptying an ink sac into a simmering sauce. For one thing, a good part of the ink is liable to end up on the periphery: the floor, the sink, the countertop, or all over the cook’s venerable hands, coating the crevices of a worn right index finger or settling into the outlines of ragged fingernails.

One solution is to wear surgical gloves, which gives the whole operation an air of antiseptic hygiene and delicate precision, suggesting the studied gestures of a practiced surgeon working in tense concentration as an oxygen machine pumps away in rhythmic reliability, monitoring vital signs (ink flow), waylaying signals of distress (ink blockage), keeping the faith (blackness will prevail) . . .

Yes, gloves can help for the inky exercise, but a sponge or two must nevertheless be sacrificed on the altar of mopping up rogue droplets. The whole thing is a messy affair. Sloppy, slurpy, all over the place, black — and really very good.

My cooking consort (and companion-for-life) has graced us repeatedly with Black Food while he teaches himself ever more efficient ways of going about the murky business. Cradling the sac tenderly, he will squeeze out the thick liquid. Black gold! India ink! Gushy tar!

If all goes well — no slits, slips, or squirts — the ink emerges slowly but surely, oozing its way forward into the sauce, easy, easy, until the sac’s contents have been completely depleted and its now deflated shell finds itself unceremoniously discarded onto a heap of soggy newspapers. Its blackness will now bubble and boil away in a saucepan while providing a picture of near-astronomical fascination. Could this be . . . a black hole? Nah.

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Browned onions and red or green peppers define the basis of the cuttlefish dish. Christmas colors, essentially. Then come the sparkly, silvery ornaments, in the form of cut-up cuttlefish slivers. Add some tomato to taste, then ease in the ink and watch it as it churns into a gooey, goopy witch’s cauldron of stew, blackening every other morsel, shutting out all light, obscuring the tiny point of light at the end of the tunnel, snuffing out all hope of redemption, blotting out the rays of the sun, inexorably extinguishing each and every . . . just kidding.

The sky is as blue as ever, the dry white wine has taken on a golden cast in anticipation, and the freshly cooked pasta gives off a pure neutrality just asking to be coated in shiny black.

A painting by Meredith Escudier’s husband, Jean-Pierre.

I don my bib apron for standby security and hold up my (white) plate to receive my portion, accepting it in awed reverence. Mon Dieu, c’est noir!

I have learned to provide only paper napkins for this dish, eschewing the colorful cloth napkins where black stains insist on resisting my housewifely attempts to whiten and brighten them. We sit. We sit with Black Food. We are at peace, and we plunge our forks into food that will darken our teeth, outline our lips, and subvert (or pervert) our potential powers of seduction.

I try to qualify the exact taste, in vain. How can this be described? Is it fishy? Strangely olive-y? Curiously sweet? Would that be Italian? Roman? Ancient Greek? Is it a hint of saffron doing the magic? Or am I imagining this? Yes. No. Yes and no. In fact, I give up.

The only thing I’m sure of is that it tastes somehow black, if you know what I mean. And today, that seems like a perfectly fine thing. Tomorrow, too.

Jean-Pierre’s Cuttlefish with Ink

Cuttlefish is a mollusk very similar to squid, which sports a sizable ink sac. Long used as an effective coloring agent, the ink also provides a rich, complex, and subtle flavor, the object of a true cult in places as diverse as Italy, Spain, and Okinawa. Unfortunately, it is rarely found in American fish markets.

Cuttlefish may come in different sizes. Always prefer the tender ones, well under one pound in weight.

You may have to clean them yourself if you want to preserve the ink sac, a silvery pouch located against the flesh inside the mantle. To do this, take away the cuttlebone and open the mantle. Discard the innards, the eyes, and the beak located between the arms. Peel the mantle. Set aside the ink sac and the duct which comes out of it. The edible parts are the mantle, the head, and the arms. Cut them into bite-size pieces.

Sauté them on high heat for 5 minutes, add salt, and set them aside. Sauté bell peppers and onions in the same pan. Add salt. Add the cuttlefish pieces and cook for 5 to 10 more minutes. Add raw ripe diced tomato, if you wish.

Press the reserved ink sac to express the ink (you can use surgical gloves to preserve your fingernails). Add a generous pinch of saffron. Cook for 5 more minutes.

Fold some steaming, freshly cooked spaghetti into the pan. It will acquire a beautiful, deep, gleaming, dark black color in no time. Add salt and pepper to taste. You can also add some chopped parsley for visual effect.

One superiority of pasta over rice is that it will not absorb all the ink, which will allow you to sample it with a spoon. And tasting that sauce in its pure form can be a revelation.

A longtime resident of France, Meredith Escudier has had ample opportunity to note how the pleasures of the table, whether ordinary or sophisticated, occupy a faithful, pleasantly reliable leitmotiv to life there. She’s seeking a publisher for her book manuscript, “Scene in France … from A to Z.”

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