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Inviting Seafood for a Meal

Or, what I learned from Lewis Carroll and Key West.

Kelly Burgess is on vacation this week and thought you might enjoy this column, which was published in May when she was just returning from another vacation.

I have always loved Lewis Carroll. He's best known as the author of "Alice in Wonderland," but I particularly enjoy his clever, nonsensical poems, especially "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which is from "Through the Looking Glass," a sequel to Alice.

It's an amusing story about inviting a group of oysters on a walk and then working up an appetite and being unable to resist the urge to eat the fat, fishy little nuggets. The two friends seem almost in denial about their betrayal, as the final stanza attests:

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,

"You've had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?'

But answer came there none--

And this was scarcely odd, because

They'd eaten every one."

Oysters are on my mind because I just returned from a vacation in Key West with my husband for our 29th anniversary (I was a child bride) and we definitely contributed to the decimation of the oyster population while we were there. And the shrimp, lobster, calamari, crab and conch populations as well as a few species of fish.

Key West is a bit like Wonderland, surreal and over-the-top, with some of the nuttiest characters I've ever seen. Some of the craziest characters are the animals: Chickens and roosters live on the streets, and local ordinance protects them. People dress up their dogs in crazy costumes and ride them around town in their bicycle baskets or sidecars. I saw one guy walking his 30-pound cat in a stroller.

Not that we wanted anyway. We were on the hunt for seafood, and we found plenty.

The best meal we had was at a restaurant we stumbled upon, the Blackfin Bistro. It was about 3 p.m. and we had been riding bikes around Key West all day and were hungry and tired and very hot. This entire restaurant seemed almost like it was open air, it was so bright and airy. The owner was friendly and eager to help us cool off with an entire pitcher of cold water and extra ice. It was lovely.

Even better was the way my husband's face lit up when he saw what was on the appetizer menu -- sautéed calamari, possibly his favorite food.

Calamari is as ubiquitous on menus as soups or salads. However, it's almost always fried. When Steve and I started eating calamari back in the early days of our marriage in California, it was almost always sautéed, and that's our favorite preparation. It's usually sautéed in a marinara-type sauce, such as a pasta sauce or the sauce I made for the mussels in last week's .

This was sautéed in butter and garlic, however, and it was a little bit of taste-bud heaven with every bite. There were no tentacles, just rings, but cut very, very narrow, as narrow as linguini. Served with a coarse, Italian bread, the dish was so good they probably didn't need to wash the bowl when we were done.

It was all we could talk about the next day, so, naturally, we went back for more, only this time we walked. It was something like seven blocks, but we needed the exercise after all we'd been eating. The owner was so pleased to see me again after I had raved to him the day before about his food that he gave me a little hug and graciously told me how I could make this simple calamari recipe at home.

One funny thing before I get to the recipe. Two of my kids were home and talking to me and waiting for the calamari as I cooked it -- partially driven mad by the wonderful aroma of the sautéing garlic, I'm sure. So, I cooked it, dished it out, and it was absolutely delicious. Not quite as good as at the restaurant, but that's probably just because it didn't have that vacation ambience.

Then, as I went to clean up, I noticed the finely chopped parsley still in the food processor; I had forgotten to stir it in as the last step, probably because of my distracting conversation with the kids. I took the bowl over to the stove, intending to add parsley to the leftovers.

But there was no calamari to add parsley to, because we'd eaten every one.

Recipe:

The sautéed calamari I had at Blackfin Bistro was rings only, but my daughter and I absolutely love the little tentacles, so I decided to add them as well. The result was good, but it turned the sauce a bit pinkish, unlike the nice, buttery yellow sauce of Blackfin's preparation.  Obviously, if it's available, you can use fresh calamari. I used frozen. I also realized, but not until the next day when I was writing this column and adding pictures, that Blackfin Bistro had toasted walnuts in their calamari. I will do it that way next time. You can see them in the accompanying picture. I guess my brain was a little fried from all the sun.

Ingredients:

1 package (1 pound) frozen calamari, thawed, rinsed and drained

5 tablespoons butter

4 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup of parsley, chopped very fine (if you remember!)

Directions:

Slice calamari bodies into narrow rings and drain well or pat dry with paper towels. Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium low heat. Sauté garlic for two minutes or so. Add calamari. Increase heat to medium and sauté calamari for 10 minutes or until firm. Do not overcook. Calamari does not brown or change color, it stays white but firms up. Stir in parsley. Serve with a good bread for sopping up the delicious sauce.


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