Category Archives: Chef Off! – In Search of Enlightenment Through Food

Squid Noodles

Squid noodles

I had been dreaming of baby squid for over twenty years. 

(As a matter of interest, they’d come to me on hot summer nights – when my sleep was fitful – dragging me down beneath the waves at the behest of their mermaid queen Winona Ryder, who communicated with them using a series of high pitched whistles…)

Anyway.

Back in the early summer of 1990, while travelling around Portugal with a girlfriend who looked like Audrey Tatou (she really did, although she wasn’t French), I had the meal of my life cooked by a bored looking chef on a rusty looking pan over an outdoor stove at a little roadside shebeen near Tevares, in the deep south. 

The heat of the midday sun was in the 90s and so, like typical Northern  Europeans we’d been walking for a couple of hours after initially trying to relax on a beach, strolling inland over dry scrub and rocks, bickering ever so slightly about whose idea this had been (the trip to the Algarve, the walk in the unattractive countryside, the relationship as a whole) but also thrilled at our adventure. We were, after all, dicing with death. If we didn’t soon find a nice little three course lunch with wine we would, well, get cross with one another. And we weren’t dressed for the beach. In those days you didn’t. We were kitted out for lounging about and drinking beer and meeting intresting people. Swimming trunks and suntans were for kids and old aged pensioners. 

Hold on, there is no place in Portugal called Tevares. That was a late mid American soul band. I must have been thinking of Tavira. ‘Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel’. And ‘It Only Takes A Minute’.

We hadn’t travelled together before, at least not properly. I had jacked one of my many jacked jobs the year before to go inter-railing and had – having got off with her at a party just before my journey – had invited her meet me for a few days in Italy, where we did Pisa and Florence and held hands a lot. But travelling to Portugal was a different experience.  Hotter. Less obviously glamorous. And with more pressure for it to be a success because we were now ‘going out’ with each other.

After tramping through dusty scrubland a couple of miles from the nearest tree, we headed back to the road and saw in the distant heat haze a little group of buildings – a garage, a couple of houses, and a café.  Inside, briefly free from the smell of baking, melting tarmac,  we nodded at the corpulent locals hunched underneath the one vintage rotary fan, drinking beer and picking at little plates of meat and bread. A flickering TV on the wall showed football. Ignoring our already uncomfortable sunburn we sat at one of the two little outdoor tables covered in blue checked cloth and ordered some beers.     
    
I’ve had Sagres a few times in the UK and the result has always been an anti-climax – slightly chemical flavoured industrially brewed bland tipple with a light fizz. But at that roadside café, the effect was electric. For a start it was the same temperature as the water in the Antarctic just underneath the ice, where David Attenborough and his film crew did some amazing shots in that recent series. No one in Britain has a fridge clever enough to do this to Portuguese beer. I finished one and ordered another before my girlfriend – let’s call her Audrié Tatou – had got a third of the way down hers. I knew very little Portugese but had enough to understand what was their special of the day. Baby squid. They had been fried at intense heats, possibly with a flamethrower, with garlic and possibly a bit of white wine and black pepper by specialists in protective clothing. Even now I can smell the exquisite aromas of those frazzled bits if protein.

I sometimes think what would have happened if that magic café hadn’t appeared out of the semi-desert near a deserted highway. Possibly my girlfriend and I might have found another café. Or had a huge row brought on by heat exhaustion and gone our separate ways. But thanks to the fat bored chef, the cold Sagres and most especially of all the baby squid, we had such an intensely fantastic experience together that we went out for another eight years. 

Anyway, fast forward 22 years. A few weeks ago some friends were due to pop round for a bite to eat so I bought some baby squid at Steve Hatt on the Essex road and decided to give it a go. I had a wok on and put the squid just before the oil caught fire. I had to fry them for longer than I expected due to the squid’s inherent soggy squidgeyness (only just realised where that word must come from). Just before the end I chucked in a large glass of Pinot Grigio. It was, as the cliché goes, a taste explosion. And I had to fight back sentimental tears of joy – possibly the rest of the dinner was ruined by my endless boring recollections of Portugal in 1990.

For these squid noodles I used the leftovers from that night, that I’d chucked straight into the freezer. Not quite so hung up on having them crispy, I did them gently in a frying pan with a load of garlic and red onions, then added peas and egg noodles at the end. This would normally be a breakfast dish, but we had it for tea.

Ingredients

Some baby squid (pull out the tenticles – go on, you can do it! – then cut into rough strips)

Four cloves garlic

2 small red onions

some peas

Two bunches of egg noodles.

Black pepper.

Glass of white wine – but at the last minute don’t put it in. This dish, being more subtle Vietnameish than smacking-your-tastebuds Portuguese, doesn’t need it. Drink it instead.

Fry it all up on a high heat, while listening to the football or a programme about the financial crisis.

(In the mid to late 70s I preferred Heatwave to Tevares. Just sayin’…)