One of the most arresting sights at Butuan City's Seafood Market is the rows of giant squid, slippery bodies big as a small cat, tentacles thick as thumbs, and eyes that are eerily human-like. As I perused the market's offerings thoughts like 'Mmmm, red snapper, chuck it on the grill' and, 'Ooooh, octopus, Italian tomato stew with spinach,' danced through my head.
Then my gaze fell upon the squid, and the only words that came to mind were 'Now what the he** do you do with that!?'
Luckily our host in Butuan City is quite a kitchen wizard, and during that week of non-stop sport eating he turned out a couple of personal favorites that take advantage of the sea beast's bounty.
Who doesn't love grilled squid? The problem, if you're preparing this at home, is that there's such a fine line between 'done' and 'rubber' that the risk of turning squid into something with a texture akin to a Superball is exceedingly high. With these babies, sheer volume lifts the getting-it-just-right pressure.
After severing (but not discarding) head and tentacles our host stuffed the skin-on bodies with a mixture of chopped onions and tomatoes and laid it all over low coals. We had a long wait for lunch but the wonderfully tender squid rings sporting a good bit of smoky char on the outside were well worth it. Bigger squid means, of course, more tentacles and Dave, an afficianado, especially appreciated the bounty.
Giant squid heads are a bit of a delicacy and our host urged us to give the eye a try. I passed.
The most surprising giant squid preparation we ate that week was an invention of the house: seafood Bicol Express. Bicol Express, a beloved Philippine specialty alleged to have originated in Bicol province (a vendor at Makati City's Salcedo Community Market also also claims to have invented the dish, so who knows), is a fiery dish made with chopped garlic, onions, chilies, pork, and plenty of rich coconut milk.
Our host's twist supplements pork with a variety of seafood (including squid tentacles, the nubs you see below), adds salted black beans, and enriches the coconut milk with smashed chicken liver. This will sound like blasphemy to many Filipinos, I know. (Does coconut milk ever need to be enriched? Liver will obliviate any delicate seafood flavor, right? If you add black beans and substitute seafood for pork is it still Bicol Express?) But the result of our host's experiments (he's been perfecting the dish for years, he says) is a sublime - if very rich - stew that, in spite of the presence of pork and those livers, tastes quite forcefully of freshness from the sea.
Especially wonderful were the squid tentacles, with a texture and flavor resembling small scallops. (And that's seaweed salad in the back, by the way.)
Apologies to those of you with access to giant squid (how do you like to prepare it?) - I didn't think to get the recipe because the beasts are nowhere to be seen in our neck of the woods.
But at least I'll know what to think about the next time I encounter them in a market: 'Mmmmm, giant squid - seafood Bicol Express.'