The Fastest Slow Cook: Braised Squid With Harissa and Olives

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Read almost any article on how to cook squid and you're likely to come across the same observation: that it can be either quick-cooked or long-cooked, but anything in between leads to a mouthful of rubber. Most recipes, though, tend to focus on the fast-cooking options, like frying, grilling, and sautéing. I'm guilty of it, too—the convenience of a five-minute squid recipe is hard to resist.

So I want this to be a reminder for myself, as much as for all of you, that we need to break out of this speedy-squid rut, because long-cooked squid may well be one of the most delicious ways of preparing it. And honestly, in squid terms, "long cooking" usually just means about 30 minutes. That's fast by most other standards.

What happens to squid when you cook it? It helps to understand that a squid's tubular body and tentacles are made up mostly of thin layers of muscle fiber and collagen. Quick cooking works because the short exposure to heat prevents the muscle fibers from contracting to the point of toughness. Long cooking, meanwhile, works because it manages to break down the collagen connecting those muscle fibers into gelatin, which has a much softer texture. Long-cooked squid is less plump and juicy than quickly cooked squid, but its tenderness more than makes up for it. Its flavor becomes more pronounced as well, growing into a rich, seafood-y savoriness that infuses whatever liquids it's braised in.

In this recipe, I take a Mediterranean approach by braising the squid with onions, garlic, white wine, olives, and tomatoes. Then I punch up the flavor with some harissa, the North African spiced chili paste, and lemon zest. It couldn't be easier.

I start by cutting cleaned squid bodies into half-inch rings and dividing large tentacles into halves lengthwise. The squid shrinks a lot during this longer cooking method, so you don't want to slice it too thinly.

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Then I cook sliced onion and garlic in olive oil until it's softened but not browned. I hit the pan with some dry white wine (doesn't matter what type or quality level as long as it's dry), add the squid, and simmer it all until most of the wine's raw-alcohol smell has cooked off.

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Next, I stir in canned whole tomatoes that I've crushed by hand (I like that rustic, chunky texture), along with their juices, and throw in a few sprigs of fresh thyme for their aroma and drained pitted black olives for some brine—Niçoise and Taggiasca are good options here. I let it all simmer together until the squid is tender. Like I said, that's usually not more than 30 minutes.

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To finish it, I stir in about a half tablespoon of harissa, which adds both chili heat and some complex spice flavor, and freshly grated lemon zest to brighten those stewed flavors up. Here, I've served it with fregola, the toasted Sardinian pasta, but many cooked grains would work—rice, farro, barley, even polenta.

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Considering you can have this on the table in under an hour, it's pretty much the fastest long-cooked dish imaginable.

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