A Riff on Paella

There are plenty of things you can do with squid. I think Bubba Gump would even agree that you can do as much with squid as you can with shrimp: squid kabobs, squid gumbo, squid soup, and even squid rice. This week in Culinary we are tackling classic paella, but with a twist: We’ll replace the rice with rice-shaped squid. Gluten-free paella! But how do you transform squid into the shape of a grain of rice? With a sharp knife and a helluva lot of patience.

We start with giant blocks of squid. First, we’ll cut it into thin matchsticks, then dice it at an angle, leaving small pieces of rice-shaped squid. We carefully watch Chef blaze through his block of squid. He cautions us to work quickly because as the squid’s temperature rises, it becomes more gelatinous.

My Culinary partner this week is a tall Bahamian gentleman with a strong cooking background. And, if I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed he ate squid rice for breakfast. He’s quickly slicing through the block of squid, pumping out piles of “rice.” This can’t be his first rodeo.

As Chef warned, my squid starts to melt before I can get through a third of it. Now it feels like I’m trying to finely dice a big gummy slug. Slugs aren’t meant to be diced. Crisp, crunchy things are, like carrots and onions and celery. Not gooey sea animals.

I don’t know if it is a weak moment of clumsiness or my slippery squid hands, but I drop a glass pepper grinder. It hits the ground in slow motion: black peppercorns and shards of glass everywhere. The room is silent as I rush to find a broom. Chef reminds me that for sanitation, brooms are barred from the kitchen. No problem. I’ll just, um… clean this up with my hands. A sweet Vietnamese girl puts down her knife and squats to help me. With two pieces of paper and a little creativity we’re able to clean up most of the mess, but we’ve lost a lot of time.

As fast as I can, I dice the rest of the squid, then toss it into a saucepan with some vegetables and chorizo that had been sautéing. Using white wine, I deglaze the pan, and once that has reduced, leaving just the cooked squid rice, I add the crown jewels: jumbo prawns, juicy mussels, and threads of saffron. We garnish our plates with a lattice of squid ink. It’s a bit tricky but definitely gets this plate of paella ready for a night on the town.

The dish is outstanding. It looks, tastes, and smells exactly like the paella warming in caldrons at Spanish markets, but the base is squid. After Chef critiques our paella plating, he mentions that next time, we can freeze the block of squid, and then use a mandolin to slice it. Why didn’t I think of that?