This is a recipe of unsung heroes: calamari (calamars in French) and tarragon. I can still remember my first encounter with the thing that is calamari. It was in a spooky old cliffside restaurant near Woodstock in upstate New York. Up until that point, my only knowledge of squid was the sculpture of the giant one in the whale room at the Museum of Natural History. The crispy rings and tendrils were a revelation: crunchy, salty, chewy, briny, and even sweet in that delicate and tender way peculiar to seafood. That was twenty-one years ago, and I've eaten calamari at least once a week since.
Calamari is all you could every ask for: It's cheap, it cooks in seconds, and it goes with anything, a Proteus that assumes and absorbs the flavors, and even sometimes the hue, of whatever you are cooking. And yet, for all their virtues, their ease, their inexpensiveness, they are still evocative of expensive seafood dinners, and generally bring an ooh or ahh from expectant eaters.
This salad is summertime, which is the dominant season on the east coast this week. The calamari are sautéed until just opaque, like cloudy smoke rings, and tossed with olive oil, lemon, chili, tomatoes, and then the dynamic duo of tarragon and mint. So often we see calamari served Italian style, with tomatoes, garlic, and basil (which, incidentally, are also a quotidian combination in Provence). But the anise of the tarragon and the fresh bite of the mint play to the sweetness of both the calamari and the tomatoes. I top the salad with a true Provence gem, chopped roasted almonds, for a salty, woodsy crunch.
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- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1 cup grape tomatoes
- 1 pound calamari, cut into 1/2-inch rings
- Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 stem tarragon, leaves roughly chopped
- 2 stems mint, leaves roughly chopped
- Chopped toasted almonds, for garnish (optional)
In a sauté pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté gently—you don't want to add color, until it just turns fragrant. Add the tomatoes and chili flakes, and some salt and pepper, and sauté for about 3 minutes.
Raise the heat to high, add the calamari, and season again. Allow to cook until just firm and opaque—under five minutes, so keep a close watch.
Meanwhile, make the dressing by whisking together the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, the lemon zest, and lemon juice with some salt and pepper.
When the calamari have gone from translucent shell pink to opaque white, and not a moment later, drain off most of the liquid in the pan. Then add the lemon dressing and the tarragon and mint. If you like, sprinkle just a few roughly chopped toasted almonds over the top. Serve hot, or at room temperature.