Dinner for Two: Buttery-Garlicky-Spicy Calamari with Israeli CousCous

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I must credit two people for introducing me to what has become my favorite special-occasion-feeling fast-food meal. The first is Melissa Clark, who wrote the recipe for the dish you see above, and the second is my dear friend, Tracie, who gifted me Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now, the book that contains said recipe.

I adore Melissa Clark because she takes dishes that seem complicated and makes them super simple and un-intimidating (like this one). And then once you make the dish, stand back and admire your work, you feel like a superhero / star chef. I love that feeling.

I grew up eating a lot of calamari, usually fried. It was a staple of our Christmas Eve menu as well as our Good Friday one. Good ol’ Italian Catholics and their affinity for seafood. My mother makes the lightest fried calamari you’ve ever tasted. It’s never greasy or rubbery or heavy or fishy, probably because my mom knows how to buy seafood, and she knows how to fry. I’ve become comfortable cooking fish fillets in the last six months, and while I can do a lot with shrimp and I’ve finally figured out how to sear scallops (hot pan! hot pan!), I have stayed away from squid. A—I don’t fry food, and B—I had distinct memories or seeing it inky, sandy and slippery on the kitchen counter from my childhood. Gross.

Ms. Clark introduced me to buying cleaned squid and sauteing it in butter and olive oil. Life-changing, let me tell you! Cleaned squid, tentacles and all, takes minutes to prepare. You cut the bodies into half-inch rings and leave them on paper towels to dry, then pat dry again. Leave the tentacles whole, unless they’re huge, in which case you just split them in half with your knife. It’s totally not gross. Also, something my mother taught me—fresh seafood doesn’t smell fishy. It smells like the sea. So if you get home and unwrap your squid and it stinks, wrap it back up and take it back to your fish dealer. Get a refund, and don’t buy from them again.

Israeli couscous is a great partner for the squid here – it’s light and creamy yet still has some bite, it absorbs the sauce well, and if you get the tri-color kind like I did, it certainly looks pretty. I found some beautiful snap peas at the market, so I served them steamed with the squid & couscous. You could substitute broccoli or baby spinach as well.

One word of note: This dish takes ten minutes to prepare, but to achieve greatness in those 10 minutes, have all your ingredients ready and the table set. You and your sweetie will be treated to an amazing meal, I promise.

RECIPE:

Buttery-Garlicky-Spicy Calamari with Israeli CousCous

adapted from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cooking time: 10 minutes
  • Serves: 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2/3 cup Israeli (pearl) couscous
  • 2 tsbp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 pound fresh raw squid, bodies cut into 1/2 rings, plus the tentacles, patted dry
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 basil leaves, cut into ribbons
  • handful of parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • quarter of a lemon (to squeeze)

Method:

  • Add broth & pinch of salt to a 1.5 or 2 quart saucepan, then bring to a boil. Add the couscous, return to a boil, then cover and turn the heat to its lowest setting. Set your timer for 10 minutes.
  • This would be a good time to prep a vegetable for steaming in the microwave. Or, you could whip a green salad together. Just sayin’.
  • When the couscous has 5 minutes to go, heat a large skillet (not non-stick) over high heat. After a couple a minutes, add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter is melted and the foam subsides, add the squid and stand back (there may be some sputters and pops – careful!). Be patient and don’t poke the squid for a solid minute.
  • Add the garlic, basil, parsley and pepper flakes and stir everything together. You’ll see some sear marks on the squid (this is good), and you want to cook it till its just opaque throughout, which is really easy to see. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top and remove from heat.
  • Stir in the couscous till its coated with the sauce, then squeeze the lemon over the mixture (watch out for pits!) and stir again. Serve immediately with a nutritious green vegetable and a glass of something light and crisp, like a Grüner Vetliner.

Pasta with Pan-Seared Asparagus & Pancetta

I usually do a lot of cooking on Sunday—I’ll make a big midday meal for my boyfriend and I, and sometimes our friends, and usually I’ll do what my mother calls “cooking for the week”.  Sometimes I’ll prepare a big pot of soup, roast some vegetables, make a big pot of rice or farro.  I portion everything out into plastic containers, and then I’m good to go—until Thursday night, when I’ve either run out of cooked food, or I’ve grown tired of leftovers.

Last night, a quick glance of my unusually empty refrigerator gave me two ingredients: asparagus and zucchini. I couldn’t really make a meal of just those, so I went to the pantry. Behold! Pasta. On the counter, garlic. In the spice cabinet: red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt. Then I went back to the fridge, directly to the cheese drawer for some parmesan, and lo—I found an unopened package of chopped pancetta. I grabbed the asparagus and left the zucchini behind for another meal.

There’s really no trick to this dinner—while the water boils, clean the asparagus and snap off the tough ends. Grate some cheese, chop some garlic. Once the pasta starts cooking, you can prepare the asparagus any way you like—steamed, sauteed, grilled or roasted. I’ve taken to pan-searing asparagus in my cast iron skillet. The method is simple, quick, and leaves the asparagus bright green and crisp-tender, with just a bit of char. I sear the asparagus spears whole, then chop into pieces.

In another pan I cooked the pancetta (about 3 tablespoons) with the garlic and olive oil, adding just a splash of red wine to de-glaze the pan. Once the pasta was done cooking, I drained it and threw it in with the pancetta, added the asparagus, a bit more oil and then the cheese. A couple stirs, and I was done. Dinner for the evening, and enough to enjoy for lunch the next day.

Pork gets a POP! from Pomegranate Molasses

I'd call that a successful meal.

I’d never cooked a pork tenderloin before last night, mostly because on the few occasions I’ve eaten it I’ve found the meat to be dry, and sometimes a bit dull.  My original plan was to make pan-seared duck breast, a fine main course for a Valentine’s Day dinner, but my plans were thwarted by lack of availability (in Brooklyn! I went to 4 supermarkets Monday and couldn’t locate fresh duck at any of them).

I ultimately went with the pork tenderloin because I had a feeling it would go well with the sauce I planned to prepare with the duck, based on a wonderful ingredient I learned about in a cooking class at Camaje restaurant last month:

Magic in a bottle.

Meet pomegranate molasses: the home cook’s secret weapon for turning an otherwise dull meat into something extraordinary. (I should point out that duck, an extraordinary meat on its own, is just sublime with this stuff.) Pomegranate molasses can be found at Middle Eastern grocery and specialty stores (like this one), and a little goes a long way—this is super-concentrated sweet-tart to the max, deep in color, and viscous like honey.  It’s also really economical—this bottle set me back 3 bucks, and you need very little to make the sauce.

When it came time to preparing the pork, I used tips from a couple of different recipes to achieve maximum flavor and tenderness.  My recipe starts with a spice rub, then pan-searing the meat in a cast iron skillet before finishing it in the oven.  While the meat cooks in the hot box, you make the sauce on the stove. Even allowing the meat plenty of time to rest, the whole process takes no more than a half hour.

The result: moist and tender meat flavored with a sauce that gives a jolt to your taste buds—not in a jolt-from-crazy-hot-sauce kind of way, but more like a “Holy crap, this is unlike anything I’ve ever had!” kind of way.  That’s what a dose of sweet-tart-central on pork will do to you. My boyfriend and I had the same “Yow!” reaction, and then we didn’t really speak to each other because we were too busy eating.

RECIPE:

Pork Tenderloin with Pomegranate Molasses Sauce

Serves: 2

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

1 pork tenderloin (about 3/4 pound)

For the spice rub:

  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. (heaping) salt

For the sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 cup chicken broth (homemade if you have it; otherwise use a low-sodium one from the store)
  • 1/2 cup spicy red wine (Pinot Noir is ideal; also perfect to drink with dinner)
  • 2 tbsp. pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tsp. honey

Method:

Combine ingredients for spice rub in a shallow bowl and then dredge the tenderloin in the rub, coating on all sides. Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees.

Heat a large (10″ – 12″) cast iron skillet over high heat and coat with non-stick spray.  When the pan is hot, use tongs to place the tenderloin in the pan.  Cook for about 1 minute on each side—the goal is to brown all sides.  Carefully transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes.  The meat is done when a thermometer poked in the middle reads 155 degrees.

While the meat is in the oven, grab a small saucepan or 9″ skillet and set it over medium high heat. Add butter. Once the butter is melted, add the shallots, adjusting the heat so the butter doesn’t burn. Sauté the shallots for about two minutes, and then add the remaining ingredients. Increase the heat so the mixture reaches a boil, and then reduce to simmer for about 10 minutes. The mixture will thicken slightly as it reduces.

When the meat is ready, transfer it to a cutting board or plate and cover with foil. Allow it to rest for about 5-7 minutes before slicing on the bias.  Arrange on a serving plate (chopped parsley makes a nice garnish here), and pour sauce on top. Ta-daa.

I served this with parsnip apple smash—sweet and just a tad spicy, with a more complex flavor than mashed potatoes and the added bonus of having apple, one of pork’s best friends.

Side note…

This is probably the most economical special occasion meal I’ve prepared. Pork tenderloin is widely available and generally inexpensive (I got 2 pounds for just under $10), and as I mentioned the bottle of pomegranate molasses was only $3. The most expensive item involved here is the wine (I was fortunate to have a bottle left over from the Super Bowl).  Still, if you’re planning to drink wine with the meal, get a decent bottle of Pinot Noir and you’re set for the sauce. Cabernet would work too.  This is also a meal you don’t have to feel guilty about—pork tenderloin is a lean meat with barely any fat on it, and the only fat you’re adding here is the butter. Olive oil makes a fine substitution.