Eating in Color

Hey- I’m a guest writer on Summer Foodie and this is my first post. Big thanks to Lloyd for letting me join the fun

The finished dish.

The finished risotto noir.

I like foods that are colorful. This is an element of cooking that I think is, regrettably, often neglected by home chefs. Given that our first experience of every food is visual, I would argue that color should be taken seriously in planning any dish, even on a par with other elements like flavor and aroma. Of course, there are also those who claim that color-conscious eating is the secret to a healthy diet, and there’s much to be said about various colors’ effects on appetite (especially about colors that rarely occur naturally in food, like blue).

Whether or not you buy into the health claims (I generally don’t) or the possible physiological effects, you can still appreciate that a dish with unique or vibrant coloration can be much more interesting and appealing than one with less to offer the eyes, even if they taste and smell exactly the same. For an adventurous cooking experiment, try planning a dish (or even a whole menu) around a few specific colors.

One simple way to do this is to find an ingredient that has an interesting color and work around that. I saw a cool recipe in Kay Scarlett’s Sea Food for risotto noir, a straightforward squid risotto made unique by its jet black color (a result of adding in the squid’s ink). The best way to make this dish is to find some whole, uncleaned squid and harvest the ink yourself. This will save you a lot of money, first because whole squid is generally cheaper than the cleaned variety, and second because you won’t have to buy the ink separately (squid’s ink by itself is a delicacy and sells for a hefty price at gourmet groceries, if you can find it at all). Unfortunately, unless you know of a great fresh seafood market nearby, finding whole squid can be quite a bother. After searching through 7 or 8 fish markets (including a few in Chinatown and some Manhattan notables like Citarella and Lobster Place) and finding only cleaned squid, I discovered that the easiest way to track the stuff down is to call a market 4 or 5 days in advance and have them set aside some whole squid for you when they get it from the wholesaler (before they have a chance to clean it).

$8.00 buys a lot of whole squid.

$8.00 buys a lot of whole squid.

The cleaned squid, ink in the middle.

The cleaned squid, ink in the middle.

Once you’ve got the whole squid, the first task is to clean it and get the ink. Here‘s a very easy-to-follow guide on how to do this. To prepare the risotto, first heat about 4 cups of stock to a simmer (the original recipe calls for fish stock- I used vegetable because it’s what I had on hand and it was delicious). In another larger saucepan melt 6-7 tablespoons of butter and add in a diced onion, preferably red for the sharper flavor (and of course the color). Cook until the onion softens a bit then add in the squid bodies, finely chopped, as well as 3 or 4 crushed cloves of garlic. Cook on medium heat, stirring often, until the squid turns opaque in 3 or 4 minutes. Then add 1 1/2 cups of whatever rice you’re using (arborio is the classic risotto variety, but as Mark Bittman has wisely observed, any type of rice will work), as well as the squid’s ink, diluted into 1/2 cup of water, and 1/2 cup dry white wine if you’ve got it (if not, substitute in the same amount of stock, or even water, and the difference will be hardly noticeable). Increase to medium-high heat and add in a ladleful of the simmering stock. Stir almost constantly until the liquid is absorbed into the rice, then add some more stock and repeat. Continue with this process until the rice is al dente (slightly less than completely cooked).

The nearly finished risotto.

The nearly finished risotto.

Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in another pan and quickly fry the squid’s tentacles for a garnish. Set over the top of the finished risotto, as well as some grated parmesan if you like (you could also add the parmesan to the rice just before it finishes in the saucepan- a trick that adds to the creaminess of the dish).

Frying up some tentacles.

Frying up some tentacles.

Overall, the dish turned out well for me. The squid’s ink that I used wasn’t quite potent (or plentiful) enough to color the dish decisively black as I’d hoped, but it did give the risotto a dark purple/gray hue that was unusual and surprisingly appealing (especially accented by the lively pink tentacles). My roommate and brother, both initially very skeptical (a historically warranted view of black foods), actually seemed to think the finished product was quite good. The flavor had a very rich and distinct fishy-but-not-quite quality, perhaps a result of adding the ink (as well as using vegetable stock). In any case, I hope to churn out a few more color-centered posts in the coming months, whenever interesting ingredients catch my eye (I would prefer to branch out from black foods but this looks like it might be just too enticing). Enjoy, and may you eat colorfully.

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