By Alice Cascorbi


A Culinary Sleuth's Tale

A food fancier sets out to replicate a maddenly elusive recipe for squid.

IT WAS A PERFECT PIECE OF CALAMARI. Deep-fried to a golden brown, curled invitingly around bright-yellow lemon wedges, only inches from a colorful nest of Greek salad topped with black olives. O.K., so it was nestled in an obnoxious Styrofoam carry-out box. At this point, I didn't care about the ethics of biodegradability. I was hungry, and this was calamari from my favorite Greek restaurant. Usually I ate there, but today I had ordered it to go.

And today, as I bit into it, sitting behind the wheel of my rusted-out old Honda Civic parked facing frozen Lake Calhoun in downtown Minneapolis, I experienced a revelation. As the squid filled my mouth, everything else fell away -- the sounds of city traffic behind me, the glare of sun on the snow-covered lake, the dusty blue of my dashboard. An image of a jar of Jif was filling my mind. Then something like a striped paper bag at a circus, a time a similar flavor flooded my senses. "It tastes like ... tastes like ... PEANUTS!" I fairly shouted to myself. "Peanuts! Peanuts! They must be cooking it in peanut oil! That's it!! That's the Secret!"

I must explain that I had been tracking this calamari recipe for months. Food is a joy of my life. While others have different preoccupations -- model railroaders may agonize that the scale of one of their streetlights is a little off kilter, and obsessive birders rise before dawn and wait hours in bushes, hoping to expand their life list of sighted birds -- I go to any lengths to search out the recipes that blow me away. Since I first sat down to a plate of deep-fried squid at "It's Greek To Me," at the corner of Lake Street and Hennepin in uptown Minneapolis, I knew that a quest lay before me. I have been frying squids since I was fourteen -- you dip their little tentacles into some kind of batter, pop them in some boiling oil, and voila! Five minutes later, crispy deep-fried calamari. Easy, and delicious. I thought I knew everything there was to know about it.

"It's Greek To Me" proved me wrong. Their calamari compared to my best efforts the way a bottle of Chateau Rothschild compares to a cheap carafe of Gallo. And the damnable thing was, I couldn't figure out how they were doing it.

I had already tried the easy route -- writing to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which publishes readers' requests for recipes from local restaurants. I received a polite letter telling me that they had tried, but unfortunately, "It's Greek To Me" never shared recipes with the public. Even for fried squid.

Subterfuge was now in order. I visited the restaurant every few weeks, whenever time and pocketbook would allow. I always ordered calamari. Fortunately, the place had an open kitchen, almost like a lunch counter. I could stand and wait for my order and watch the cooks prepare it. Waitresses gave me sidelong looks as they brushed past me, doubtless wishing I'd sit on the bench and root through the Twin Cities Reader like a decent patron, but I didn't let them dissuade me. I was a person with a mission.

I'd watch the cooks remove some raw squid, dripping with a mysterious, thin liquid, from a bowl in a refrigerator. Casually, they'd swirl it like a limp rag in a pie plate full of some flour mixture, then plop it into an enormous shallow frying pan over a medium flame. The head cook, a round-faced, bearded man, would give it a poke and walk away to his other orders. He wasn't giving this calamari hawk's-eye attention. He only turned it once, when the underside was already crispy brown. In ten minutes I'd have a plate of that inimitable squid, only marginally enlightened as to how it got that way. I had seen him do it; I went home and did it all like a confirmant repeating catechism. But grace was not yet fallen upon my head. The results were my pedestrian usual. No sing, no squid with wings.

Why did it look so simple?

There is a movie called Tampopo, where a woman tries almost every tack in a truly heroic quest for the best recipes for her noodle shop. One of her tactics is to play the innocent amateur. Never doubt that movies influence the young. I put on a bright face one time at "It's Greek to Me," innocently asking the cook what kind of flour they used to dredge their squid. He told me it was just all-purpose flour. "And the oil?" I asked. "Are you frying it in olive oil?" (This had been one of my suspicions.) He shook his head emphatically. "Vegetable oil," he said, and walked away. He had been friendly; I didn't push my luck. So it wasn't olive oil. What other exotic oil should I expect, in a Greek kitchen? Peanut oil is not Greek, nor is it a common cooking oil in Minnesota. His comment put me off the scent. I figured the amazing but subtle difference must be some combination of Greek spices slipped into the flour mixture. I consigned myself to examining the batter coating closely, hoping to piece out what exactly was in there.

Relying on my eyes, I would never have cracked their subtle secret. But my sense of smell came to my rescue -- one could say my sense of taste, but we perceive all but the roughest outlines of taste via our noses. It was the scent of peanuts, rising up among the vapors of squid and crunchy coating, that tipped me off to where nirvana lay.

It's easy to see that humans are primarily an eye-minded species. Sight is our most important way of exploring the world. Squid, by the way, are the same way -- like us, they are sight hunters who can see color. But for many other creatures, including most of the squid's mollusk kin, sight is a poor thing at best. Smell and taste, the "chemical senses," are their widest window on the world. With these faculties, animals read bits of the world around them -- molecules from whatever's out there, bumping into special receptors on nose or tongue or antenna, setting off signals that tell the brain of food or mates or danger. Chemical senses work in complete darkness, and even for the multitude of species that have no eyes. Only a sense of touch is found in more lifeforms on our planet.

Smell is an ancient sense; the tissue that makes sense of scents shows up as well-developed bulbs even in the primitive brains of worms and insects. Interestingly, it is smell that gave us our ability to reason. As brains evolved, the smell bulbs swelled into the cerebral cortex, seat of memory and learning. Some scientists call our convoluted gray matter the "smell brain" because of this. The tissue that hosts our highest conscious functions evolved out of a lump of flesh set for interpreting smells. Perhaps this is the evolutionary reason that smell is the only sense wired directly into our brains. Information from our eyes, ears, and touch receptors must jump two nerve junctions before it enters the brain -- one from the sensory cells to a larger, conducting nerve, and another from that conducting nerve into the brain. But smell is different. Two tiny sensory bulbs dangle from the base of our brains into our nasal cavities, separated from the outside world by only the thinnest of membranes. Smell receptors on those membranes pass information directly to the brain's olfactory nerve, without going through a conducting nerve "middleman." And the olfactory nerve plugs directly into the brain, right next to the limbic area, the nexus of memory and emotion.

This may be why scents conjure up memories so quickly and vividly. Often, a scent of something experienced in a far-off time first triggers the emotions of that time, and then, more gradually, the picture comes through. "I know I've smelled that somewhere before...sun, green, and feeling loved... Aunt Edna's lily-of-the valley perfume!! That's how she smelled, when she hugged me in her garden!"

In my experience, a smell need not be pleasant to trigger a pleasant memory. I actually like the smell of stale cigarette smoke, because my grandmother, whose visits I loved as a kid, smoked like a chimney. The only time our house stank of cigarettes was when she was with us. And would you say that date-walnut bread has a pleasant smell? I would, too, and as a small kid it was a favorite food. But now, a whiff makes me lose my appetite. When I was about four, my mother thought I had drunk some paint remover. I was grabbed, hosed down, wrapped in a blanket and held down while she phoned the doctor. I was in the bathroom being forced to throw up before I was able to make clear I'd only put my hand in the deadly remover. To apologize, my mother gave me date-walnut bread. I have loathed it ever since. Probably every human being on the planet could tell a similar tale of scent and memories.

Memories can carry smell into our consciousness, but we respond to scent on an unconscious level too. When women live together, their menstrual cycles often synchronize. Researchers in Canada showed that this is a response to tiny amounts of hormones secreted in sweat. Women synchronize to another woman even when they are exposed only to a drop of diluted essence of her perspiration, dabbed under their noses each day. The test subjects say they do not consciously "smell anything." But their noses are collecting and communicating information -- information that the body thinks is important enough to act on in a complex way. Smells may influence us more than we consciously know.

But our noses, however much they may enrich our experience of the world, are still pitifully poor compared to those of most other mammals. Human noses have neither the range nor the finesse to separate faint and fleeting smells, especially with a lot of other scent around. A dog, a bear, or even a cat would probably have been able to find the peanut note in the crunchy calimari on the first bite -- if any of them cared enough about fried squid to do so. The secret of the calamari had been, literally, right under my nose many times, but I didn't get it until I took the dish out of the restaurant. When I'd eaten it at one of their tables, bathed in the fragrances of roast lamb, onions, and rosemary, I hadn't been able to notice it. And it was only after cooking the squid at home, in peanut oil, that I could taste that something else was still missing, something easier to sniff out, now I knew the most important part of the secret. Smell is a subtle thing. A few molecules, rising through the nasal passages, making contact with the brain -- what a difference they make.

1 lb. cleaned squid -- including both tubes and tentacles
1 cup all-purpose wheat flour
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup peanut oil, preferably of hearty flavor

Mix the flour, salt, and pepper and set the mixture aside. Place the cleaned squid in a bowl. Mix the water with the lemon juice and pour it over the squid. Marinate about one hour, in the refrigerator. Lift the squid pieces one at a time from the marinade and dredge in the flour mixture, thoroughly coating both sides. Heat the peanut oil in a skillet over a medium-to-high flame and add the squid. Cook about ten minutes, until you see a golden crust more than halfway up the sides of the squid. Turn the squid and fry it until the other side is browned-about three minutes. Serve with lemon wedges, over hot rice or warm pita bread. Enjoy.