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Squid Ink, and Risotto al Nero di Seppie

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A cuttlefish risotto made with cuttlefish ink looks very much like gravelly tar. However, it's extremely delicate, with much of the delicacy coming from the ink, which imparts an evenness to the cuttlefish flavor of the risotto that would have been absent otherwise. You could also make this with squid or calamari.

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients:

  • Freshly caught cuttlefish, with its ink sack (exact amounts below)
  • Rice
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Beat greens

Preparation:

Never had risotto nero alle seppie? Here's Pellegrino Artusi's recipe, from my translation of his book, which Random House published as The Art of Eating Well. It's about the only instance I'm aware of in Italian in which the word Fiorentina is associated with spinach:

Risotto Nero Colle Seppie alla Fiorentina -- Black Risotto with Cuttlefish, Florentine style

This invertebrate (Sepia officinalis), which belongs to the order of mollusks and the family of the cephalopods, is called calamaio (inkwell) in Florence, perhaps because nature has given it a sack containing a black liquid that can be used as ink with which to defend itself (in Tuscan, words are often formed through similes -- see note below).

Tuscans, and in particular Florentines, whose love of vegetables is such that they’d willingly stuff them into everything, put beet greens into this dish, where they seem to me to go as well as baked bread goes with the Creed (in other words, not at all). This excessive use of greens is no doubt one of the reasons, and certainly not the least, behind the flaccid constitutions of some groups of people who bear up poorly under the stress of illness, and fall as thick as the leaves in late autumn.

Skin and open the cuttlefish to remove the unnecessary parts, i. e. the bone, mouth, eyes, and stomach; set aside the ink sacks. Wash the cuttlefish well and dice them. (Cleaned, they should weigh about 1 1/2 pounds, or 700 g.)

Finely mince two small onions, or better yet one onion and a clove of garlic, and sauté this mixture in a pot, in a quarter cup of good olive oil. When it's lightly browned, add the cuttlefish and wait till they begin to color before adding about a pound and a half of well washed, ribbed, and coarsely chopped beat greens. Mix well, and let the mixture simmer for about a half-hour, then add 3 cups of rice (the weight of the cuttlefish) and the ink. As soon as the rice absorbs the color from the ink, add boiling water and finish cooking the risotto (stir in water, a ladle at a time, until the rice reaches the al dente stage). The rice should not be overcooked, and when we say dry we mean it should form a mound on the serving platter. You should, generally, accompany rice with grated Parmigiano, though you should forego the cheese when the rice is cooked with hard to digest ingredients like these, if you’ve got a delicate stomach.

Now I’ll give you another method, leaving the choice of which you prefer up to you. No beet greens, no ink, and when the cuttlefish begin to color, as above, add the rice and cook with boiling water and a half cup of tomato sauce or two tablespoons of tomato paste. A dollop of butter added will give the risotto grace, and when it’s almost done stir in some grated Parmigiano.

If you want an even better risotto, when the rice is half done stir in 3/4 of a cup of freshly shelled peas.

Note: Artusi means the Tuscan language here. Modern Italian derives from Tuscan, and more specifically the variety of Tuscan spoken between Florence and Siena. When Alessandro Manzoni was working on I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), considered one of the great novels of all time, he announced he was going to "rinse his clothes in the Arno", and spent several months in Florence, listening to the way people talked. As a result, his Milanese characters speak using Florentine speech patterns.

Another idea for cuttlefish ink is Seppie Nere alla Veneziana, cuttlefish stewed in wine and broth with their ink and a little tomato. Venetians traditionally serve it with polenta, and it's very nice, especially when it's nippy out.

Not sure where to find the ink? If you live near a seaport, visit a market that has freshly caught fish and ask for an uncleaned squid or cuttlefish. When you get home, carefully cut around the beak, then pull out the mouthparts, which will have everything else attached to them including the ink sack. Be careful not to puncture it until you need it. Peggy of Home cooking gives excellent instructions if you have never done this before.

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