Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Own Private Hell

For as long as I've lived in Manhattan (going on almost nine years now), I've lived downtown, on the east side. So it was with some trepidation that I suddenly began searching for an apartment not only on the west side, but in Hell's Kitchen, an area not considered "downtown" by anyone's standards. Although I was able to find a larger, cheaper apartment within walking distance of my office, I was still nervous to explore a new area. After spending President's Day weekend on a self-imposed lock down setting up the apartment and this past weekend with out of town friends, it's become clear that I still know very little about my new neighborhood. In what little time I've had to explore (i.e. quick after work grocery runs) I've discovered that living off of restaurant row has its perks. The best perk? A better selection of fresh foods and import ingredients at the supermarket.

For months I'd been dying to make a chili-salt squid recipe to no avail. I searched Murray Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods weekend after weekend, every time I had a chance to visit the supermarket or the fishmonger, and evidently, squid is not a popular item, and therefore rarely carried by anyone. By contrast, a quick stop at the Hell's Kitchen Amish Market led to my finally purchasing a pound of squid(!). Even the barking dog and screaming demon child next door couldn't bring me down from my new found gastronomic high. As I prepared a very simple dry rub, I wondered aloud (sometimes that happens when you live alone) whether or not I remembered how to properly clean squid. Opening the clear plastic container I found that the pound of squid was not only clean, but impossibly fresh smelling.

Practically aflutter with culinary joy, I thinly sliced the squid into snowy white tendrils and got the oil screaming hot. One of the great things about this dish is how quickly it cooks up. All that's really involved is cutting the squid, coating it in the flour and spices and frying it--for five minutes! The results are very impressive, since few people actually ever make fried calamari at home. Cut into long, languid strands and coated in a mix of brick red spices, the result is a spicy tangle of squid unlike any you've tried before. I topped mine off with fresh red chilies, scallions, and a few good squirts of lemon juice, all of which work well with the soft, noodle like interior and crunchy, salty coating. I adapted the recipe (the original is from Kylie Kwong's cookbook, Heart and Soul) to fit my needs by adding a lot more flavor--mostly spices--and a bit more salt. I was very happy with the final result and came to the conclusion that despite the devil spawn next door, life in Hell's Kitchen has so far proven to be a little slice of heaven. Here's my final recipe:

Chili Salt Squid

1 lb fresh squid, cleaned and thinly sliced
3 heaping Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp chili powder
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 1/2 Tbsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
Vegetable oil for frying, about 3 cups
2 lemon wedges
Fresh red chili and scallion for garnish (optional)

1. Heat oil in a heavy bottom pot (I used a wok) until very hot, but not smoking.

2. Meanwhile, combine flour, chili, cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add squid and coat well in the spice mixture.

3. Add squid to the oil and fry in batches until golden, crisp and cooked through. Top with thinly sliced red chili and scallions and serve with lemon wedges. Enjoy!

Two Helpful Tips:

***I like to save the oil from a dish like this (so long as it hasn't burned) by straining out the crumbly bits and keeping the spice infused oil for future dishes. It'll add instant spicy flavor to the next thing you sauté.

***If you like to keep your freezer stocked with proteins (as I do), make this dish with frozen calamari rings for a super fast appetizer.


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