There’s nothing like volunteering at the local Y to give one a sense of civic pride. I once helped coach a basketball team of 7 – 9 year olds. Fortunately, my co-coach knew all about the game of basketball and actually played it a few times. As for me? Well, I guess he brought me in to raise the team’s collective self-esteem because each one of those little guys could kick my butt in a game of one-on-one. But I had one thing they didn’t have – a whistle.
And here’s what I found out. A whistle is a lot like the bagpipes, only easier to play. See, my parents bought me a set of bagpipes for my 21st birthday (to honor my Scots/Irish heritage). Since they came with no directions, the only way I knew how to play them was to haul butt down the interstate and hold them out the window. Geez, what a racket that made. In the first week alone, I was pulled over six times for practicing.
Thankfully, all that practice prepared me for my job with the Ocean Conservancy. At the interview they asked me if I enjoyed working with sea creatures. I said yeah. They asked if I’d ever handled an octopus. I said, no, but I knew how to play the bagpipes. They said that was close enough and I got the job. And that’s when I learned to cook calamari.
But the bagpipes was not my first instrument. That would’ve been the trumpet. Everyone in the 5th grade at Daniel Warren Elementary in the 60s had to learn an instrument. My first choice? The violin. Probably because Larry from The Three Stooges wreaked so much havoc with his. Remember when his bow took that guy’s toupee off in the courtroom? I so wanted to do that. I even wanted to be a lawyer just so I could try it. Anyway, it seemed that most of my classmates had the exact same idea. The school ran out of violins, so they gave me a trumpet.
And here’s what I learned: One should never take a trumpet to the beach to practice. Do you know how much sand a 5th grader can cram into the horn of a trumpet? Trust me. A lot. Especially if he takes off his sneaker and uses it to really cram it in.
The next day I turned my trumpet back in to the music teacher cuz the plungers keep sticking and the mouthpiece tasted like salt. After muttering some words that sounded a lot like ‘you little muffin plucker,’ he snatched the trumpet out of my hand and issued me a triangle in its place. But that was okay. Now I could at least practice at the beach.
Later on, in college, I picked up the banjo. Got pretty good at it, too. In the late 70s I was voted 2nd best banjo player in the state of Florida. I’d show you my trophy but the engraver misspelled the word ‘banjo’. He spelled it ‘bango’ (like I was playing a tropical fruit as it might be pronounced by someone with a sinus infection). I would’ve won first place if that star-spangled Vietnam Vet with MS hadn’t shown up in a wheelchair with the seeing-eye dog. Hell, he didn’t even own a banjo, let alone play one. I’m convinced he got the sympathy vote. But hey, at least I got second place. Third place went to a mailbox. It was a small competition.
Anyway, I still trace my fondest musical memory back to the bagpipes. It was fun practicing on the freeway and it was fun wearing a kilt as I did so. By the way, do you know what a Scot wears under his kilt? Me neither. So I wore nothing. It was very liberating. But you sure can’t jump off the second floor porch of a frat house into a crowd of sorority girls and not expect a reaction. Or an arrest. Especially if the campus police are hovering nearby. I’m just saying.
I hope you’ve been able to follow my glorious train of thought: Bagpipes. Bango. Octopus. Calamari...
Because even though calamari might resemble a small octopus, it is really quite different. Here is a classic recipe that I’m sure you will enjoy. Scaled down for two, of course. However, if you feel like inviting the Y basketball league or the entire sorority over, you may want to spring for an octopus. Oh, and if you’re bound and determined to jump off the second floor porch, don’t forget to wear some boxers under that kilt.
It hasn’t always been easy to find calamari (squid) in your neighborhood grocery store. Now, thankfully, many carry it cleaned and ready to cook at the seafood counter or in the frozen food section. If your grocery store doesn’t carry it, your local fish market most certainly will. This recipe is a northern Italian classic. Although traditionally served with a squirt of lemon juice, I’ve also included an aioli dipping sauce (calamari with tomato sauce is an American invention).
Prep Time: 15 minutes Soak Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 5 minutes
1/2 pound calamari, cleaned
3/4 cup milk
3 fresh basil leaves, chopped
Enough canola or vegetable oil to fill skillet to 1-inch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Lemon wedges to garnish
1. Rinse the calamari and pat dry. Cut the body into 1/2-inch rings and trim the tentacles as desired.
2. Combine the milk, egg, and basil leaves in a small bowl. Beat until well mixed. Place the calamari into the mixture and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Prepare Aioli Sauce (below) and refrigerate.
3. Meanwhile, combine the flour, paprika, cayenne pepper, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl.
4. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet or heavy pot over medium heat until the temperature reaches 375˚.
5. Dredge the calamari in the seasoned flour to coat, then fry for 1 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately with lemon wedges or an aioli dipping sauce.
6 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for 15 – 30 minutes.