Despite what you may think, Vietnamese food at core is very simple cooking that relies on a handful of fresh ingredients. Dishes like this one, inspired by an appetizer I ordered at Charles Phan’s Slanted Door in San Francisco, showcases how straightforward cooking can produce surprisingly complex and beguiling results. That's the genius of any good cooking.
Phan’s restaurant version employed terrific fresh squid and small whole padron peppers (the kind used for Spanish tapas), but those mild peppers were a little flat in flavor, especially when up against the piscine squid. To spice the dish up in my home kitchen, I use peppers with a little more heat, such as large padrons, Portuguese, Anaheims, Fresnos, and the like. Right now, Melody Ranch, a local Watsonville, CA, farm that’s been my chief source for fun peppers this year, is selling its last harvest of moderately hot chiles. This simple preparation allows me to savor them more. (You may recall that I’ve been championing pan-frying chiles with salt and eating with rice!)
If at all possible, clean your own squid. I’m fortunate to get freshly caught squid caught from the Monterey Bay at my local health food store, Staff of Life. Regardless, young squid, with bodies about 1 inch wide and tubes only 5 inches long are ideal. If they’re not available, use the next size up and rinse them well, maybe with a little salt to refresh them.
Enjoy the squid as an entrée with lots of rice, or as a nosh, maybe with some bread to sop up all the juices.
Squid Stir-fried with Chile Peppers
Mực Xào Ớt
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes
1 1/2 pounds whole squid, cleaned, or 2/3 pound cleaned squid (use tube bodies and tentacles)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
5 ounces moderately hot, large chiles (e.g, Anaheim, Padron, Fresno, Portuguese, or a combination of chiles)
1 or 2 pinches of salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1. Cut the cleaned squid tubes into 3/4 inch thick sections. Leave the tentacles as is. Transfer to a strainer, rinse well with water and then pat dry with paper towel. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cornstarch, fish sauce, and lime juice, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the squid and toss to coat well. Set aside to marinade.
3. Stem the chiles and halve them lengthwise. If you want to retain the heat, keep the seeds and membranes. Otherwise, scrape them out with your knife and discard. Cut each chile half crosswise into 1 inch thick pieces. Set aside.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the chile pieces, spreading them out in one layer. Let them cook, searing and hissing for about 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the salt, then stir and flip them over, letting them sear for 1 to 2 minutes more. When fragrant (you may sneeze) and slightly soft with a few brown spots, transfer the chile to a plate.
Increase the heat to high and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add the shallot, stir-fry for 1 minute until soft and a bit blistery. Add the squid, leaving and marinade behind. Stir-fry for about 45 seconds until they have curled up and turned white. Add back the chile, stir fry to heat through, another minute or so. A slightly thickened sauce should have formed. Transfer to a serving plate or shallow bowl and serve immediately.