I had my first encounter with (squid) ink pasta in the early 2000’s, when I was still a teenager taking my first steps into the world of cooking my own meals. My then best friend and I were roaming the aisles of the supermarket in search of something exciting to eat. We were probably looking for bags of tortilla chips, frozen pizza, or something we could deep fry when suddenly we saw this package of cool-looking spaghetti; all shiny and black! Thinking we were oh-so-goth and oh-so-cool we decided this black pasta (dark as our souls, we thought) would be just the thing for us.
After boiling the pasta according to the instructions on the package and mixing it with our (undoubtedly bad quality) sauce and pre-shredded cheese we excitedly sat down to eat. I lifted the shiny black strands of spaghetti with my fork, took a big bite, chewed, and just sat there disappointed. The flavor of the pasta – if it had any – reminded me of my childhood years in school, when, after chewing on my pen too much, I was left with a blue-tinted mouth and the awful taste of writing-ink. Nostalgic? Yes. Delicious? Far from it. Perhaps my 15-year-old soul wasn’t dark enough, or maybe my palate wasn’t as trained as it is now, or it could (definitely!) be the bad supermarket-quality ink pasta, but all I could think was: not trying that again.
And I never did try to eat ink again… until about a year ago. I was having one of my first adventures (the first of many to come) at the big Varvakeios seafood and meat market in Athens, when my boyfriend and I found a big fat cuttlefish covered in its own shiny black ink. Both of us had fond memories of the smoky flavor and chewy texture of the grilled cuttlefish we were used to eating during our stays on the island of Naxos so we decided to take it home.
I had planned on using the cuttlefish in a quick stir-fry, not having the means at our apartment to grill the cuttlefish on an open fire, until my boyfriend suggested to use the ink for something. Remembering my first encounter with eating ink I was apprehensive at first: “I don’t know… it kind of tastes like licking a pen”, but decided to try it out nonetheless. Now the first issue was to clean the cuttlefish. Neither of us had tried to do it before, and the huge beast seemed pretty daunting! After watching many videos on Youtube on how to clean a cuttlefish it took us about an hour to clean it, but we succeeded and even managed to safely take out the ink sac! Practice makes perfect, of course, and now, after trying it plenty more times, we have managed to cut down on the preparation time tremendously.
How to clean a cuttlefish and take out the ink sac?
First, place the cuttlefish on a cutting-board with the bone facing upwards. You can easily feel the hard bone underneath the skin in the body. With a sharp knife pierce the skin along the edge of the cuttlebone and run your finger along the edge ripping the skin. This doesn’t always work so you might have to carefully cut along the edge. Be careful trying not to cut too deep into any of the internal organs. Remove the bone. [instructions continue below]
Now, separate the skin from the meat moving towards the flap on the side of the head and take it all off. Flaps included. You can use a knife for this step, but you should be able to remove the skin and flaps with your fingers only. Throw away the skin, but keep the flaps and cut into strips.
Next, carefully separate the membrane surrounding the internal organs from the white meat of the body. Take out the organs with the head attached.
Have some papertissue ready, because this next step can get a bit messy (or a lot messy). Look for the ink sac at the back of the organs near the top. It should be pretty easily discernible by its dark black color and silvery outside membrane. Carefully remove the ink sac and set aside in a glass. Watch out for stains! [instructions continue below]
Separate the organs from the head by cutting underneath the eyes. Throw away the organs, but keep the rest of the head and legs (duh)! Take out the beak hidden between the tentacles by grabbing it firmly and squeezing it out. Cut in between the tentacles to get individual pieces and cut up the two long arms into bite-sized pieces.
Now back to the meat removed earlier: scrub the white meat hard with about a tablespoon (or as much as needed) of coarse salt to remove the thin membrane on both sides. The salt makes it easier to grab onto the membrane and pull it off. When you think you got most of the membrane off (honestly, I don’t always have the patience to remove all the stubborn little pieces) cut the meat into thin strips.
Now your cuttlefish is ready to be used in this recipe!
During my research on the many different ways of incorporating ink into dishes I kept stumbling on several recipes for ‘sugo al nero di seppia‘ and ‘spaghetti al nero die seppia‘. Two similar names, for two related dishes: the first is a tomato-based sauce (sugo) with pieces of cuttlefish that requires the ink to be added straight into it; the later simply is cooked pasta – in this case spaghetti – mixed with said sauce. To me this seemed a better (read: easier!) way of using the ink rather than making my own dark-coloured pasta and I still think it is!
The sauce is a basic tomato sauce made with garlic, onion, white wine, parsley and fresh, or canned tomatoes, in which thin strips of cuttlefish are stewed for about two hours*, and to which the intensely black ink is added directly. The ink does not only add an intense color to the sauce, but it adds a slightly briny, very mildly fishy, sea-like flavor to the sauce; a really rich flavor that cannot be described precisely, but one that is highly addictive! Even if the preparation of this dish is time consuming (the cleaning and stewing of the cuttlefish in particular) it has quickly become one of my favorite meals, and I find myself craving it relatively often.
* Note: Cuttlefish should either be cooked flash-fried in a very hot pan, or stewed for about two hours. The reason for this is that the meat of the cuttlefish is very dense and chewy, with a lot of connective tissue. When fried quickly, the connective tissue does not have the time to harden up completely, while stewing the meat for some hours breaks down the connective tissue, leaving you with soft, slightly bouncy pieces of meat. The quick flash-fry method could be used in this recipe when using smaller cuttlefish. However, when using a big cuttlefish like I have here, I strongly recommend the stewing method.
Cuttlefish and Spaghetti in Cuttlefish Ink Sauce (Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia)
- 1 - 1,5kg cuttlefish
- 1 tablespoon cuttlefish ink (at least)
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 red chilipepper, thinly sliced (optional)
- 200ml dry white wine
- 3 medium-sized tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 500g spaghetti, or linguine
Method[You can read how to clean cuttlefish/squid and remove the ink-sac in the post above]
- Squeeze the cuttlefish ink out of the sac(s) into a glass. Add 200ml of water. Stir until ink is mixed through well. Set aside.
- Heat up a high-rimmed frying pan on medium-high heat. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté finely chopped onions until soft and translucent.
- Add the chopped garlic and chopped chili. Sauté for another minute.
- Add the strips of cuttlefish and sauté for about 3 minutes until the pieces turn white.
- Pour in 200ml of white wine and cook for another minute.
- Lower the heat and add the tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, one tablespoon of tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste. Stir.
- Now it’s time to add the ink dissolved in water to the tomato sauce. Stir carefully! If the sauce seems too thick, or dry after adding the glass of ink and water, add some extra water: there should be just enough fluid to stew the cuttlefish meat for some time.
- Depending on the thickness and size of the cuttlefish I prefer to stew the sauce for about 1,5 hours (for little ones) up to 2 hours (for a big cuttlefish as used here). The meat needs to be stewed until the connective tissue breaks down and softens.
- When the cuttlefish has turned soft enough, cook pasta according to instructions on the package.
- Mix sauce with boiled pasta and enjoy!