Stuffed Squid from The Book of Sent Soví
This recipe started out not with squid but with octopus. But sometimes things just do not work out the way you think they will, and that is OK.
I was looking through my translated version of The Book of Sent Soví (Llibre de Sent Soví), a 14th century Catalan cookbook, when I came across a recipe titled “To Stuff Octopus,” (A Farcir Polp), and I immediately thought “I have to make that!”
And so the comedy of errors began and it was not smooth sailing.
But I will get to that in a minute.
First, a little bit about the book. Llibre de Sent Soví is one of the first European culinary texts not in Latin, and the first known Catalan cookbook. It originated in Valencia, although there is another manuscript from Barcelona. Scholars believe that rather than having been penned by a single individual, the text is a collection of recipes by various people, who added, and deleted, recipes at various times.
During its time, and in the next century, the book was highly influential in European culinary circles, and recipes from it appear in a variety of cookery texts from as far away as Southern Italy.
The Crown of Aragon, where the Llibre de Sent Soví originated, was a maritime empire that at its zenith encompassed much of the Mediterranean. As such, it is entirely not surprising that a book clearly written for elite households contains a recipe for octopus or squid, even when in contemporary society those creatures were not first-choice foods.
Octopus and squid were considered to be some of the toughest sea creatures to digest, and so they were categorized as poor people’s foods, whose hardworking bodies and digestive tracks could process them.1
And yet, here it is, a recipe for octopus.
“LVII To Stuff Octopus
If you want to stuff octopus or squid, take the octopus and wash it well, boil it, cut off the arms, and take out what is inside. Chop [the arms] all together with parsley, mint, marjoram and other good herbs. You can chop another kind of fish if the tentacles are not enough. Put in the best spices that you can find. Make sure that the octopus is cleaned well. Put in the stuffing, and put in raisins and scalded garlic and fried onion. Then make almond milk with the broth that has boiled the fish, and put it in a bowl or a casserole together with the octopus; in the milk you can put a little verjuice and good spices, the best you might have, and oil. You can cook it in the oven or on an iron trivet with live coals beneath.”2
So, armed with that information, off I went to find whole octopus in my neighborhood. I thought that it would be difficult, but the first fishmonger I went to had it. Although grocery shopping in New York City can sometimes feel like you have to go to 10 places to find the ingredients to put a meal together, the small size of stores means that oftentimes they specialize.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, aside from the quintessential bodegas and a handful of “supermarkets,” there are no fewer than 3 fishmongers, plus there are butchers, cheese shops, etc. So, at least in this instance, this compartmentalization worked out for me.
At any rate, I brought the whole, frozen octopus home and began defrosting it right away, in the fridge, so that I could make it the next day.
I had never cooked octopus before but there I was on a Sunday morning, holding this creature in my hands and dropping it into boiling water.
When I pulled it out about half an hour later, it became very clear to me that something was not right. There was absolutely no way that I could fit all those tentacles, even if finely chopped, into that octopus head.
I was disappointed, but it was also a learning moment and it’s moments like this that make me realize why cooking foods and recipes from the past is such a valuable tool in understanding the past. It truly is experimental history.
I realized that the octopus the recipe writer in the 14th century used could not have been the same sort, size, age, etc. octopus that I, a 21st century cook, used. Maybe his (invariably it was a he) octopus was young and small, with a larger head to tentacle ratio. Maybe it was a different type of octopus entirely and the octopus available to him then, in Cataluña (Catalunya in the native language), was not the same octopus available to me here in New York today.
Whatever his octopus was, it was not this.
Thankfully, the recipe writer himself gave me a plan B when, in the first sentence of the recipe, he wrote “or squid.”
So off to look for squid large enough to stuff I went.
The ones I found had already been cleaned, a point that the recipe writer makes sure to tell us more than once, but they were also separated into bodies and tentacles, so I had to play a bit of a guessing game to figure out how much I needed.
This time I was sure I could make it work.
Here is the recipe as I made it:
Stuffed Squid from The Book of Sent Soví
4 large clean squid, plus tentacles (you can use other fish if the tentacles are not enough)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup mixed chopped herbs (parsley, mint, marjoram, and sage)
1/8 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp chopped raisins
salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce:
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup squid boiling broth
1 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground ginger
a pinch ground nutmeg
the oil from frying the garlic and onions
fresh grated ginger
Bring a medium pot of water salted water to a boil. Drop the squid and tentacles into the water, and simmer for 2 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, remove the squid and tentacles from the water and allow them to cool down.
In the mean time, make the sauce. Blend the almonds, squid broth, sugar, ground pepper, ground ginger, and nutmeg until smooth. Run the mixture through a nut bag to get rid of the solids, reserving the liquid.
Preheat your oven to 350°F
In a frying pan over medium heat, cook the shallot and garlic in the olive oil, making sure not to burn them, until they are aromatic and golden brown. Carefully, transfer the garlic and shallot to a medium bowl, leaving the oil behind, which will be used in the sauce.
When the squid is cool, chop the tentacles into small pieces and add to the bowl with the garlic and shallot. Add the chopped herbs, ground ginger, chopped raisins, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
Stuff each squid with as much filling as it will take. The squid has already shrunk so it will not shrink any more, and will hold the filling in without the need for toothpicks to hold the opening closed. You may have filling left over.
Place the stuffed squid into a small oven-proof casserole. Mix the almond milk sauce with the garlic and shallot oil, add some fresh grated ginger, and pour into the casserole with the squid.
Place the casserole in the oven for 20 minutes, turning the squid over once halfway through to stop the tops from drying out.
The sauce will thicken considerably.
Serve while hot.
As you can see, I left the verjuice out because it was not an ingredient I could find locally at the last minute. But because it was a suggestion, I was OK with that.
Aside from the almond milk, which was a staple of medieval cuisine, and maybe the raisins, these stuffed squid are virtually indistinguishable from modern ones. If I served this to someone without telling them it is from a 14th century recipe, I doubt they would find anything amiss.
Yet, the experience of cooking it, of putting these ingredients together that seem to us today like they should not work, felt extremely odd! Almond milk made with squid juice, for goodness sake!
But it’s only that if you think of it as almond milk. If, instead, you think of it as a sauce that happens to be thickened with almonds, it suddenly does not feel so far removed from modern tastes. Here is, for example, a modern vegan recipe for a sauce made with almond milk and with almonds added: Creamy Almond Garlic Sauce.
I was expecting the sauce to taste very fishy because the broth smelled fishy, but it did not. I also sort of expected it to be a little bit sweet because of the sugar, but, again, it was not. Instead, it was savory and smooth, and complemented the squid.
The recipe does not say how to make the almond milk. But there is a recipe for almond milk in the same book, which is how I settled on how to make it.
But if you want a medieval recipe for almond milk without the squid, I have one of those too!
The squid itself did not taste sweet despite the raisins. The only flaw I could find with the entire dish was that it was too minty for my taste. I do not like mint in my food, but I wanted to make the recipe as directed so I included it. If I was making this recipe regularly for actual eating, I would just leave the mint out.
By the time I got to try the dish, after taking all the photos, it was cold. I probably should have made more than two portions so that I could have tried it hot while also having food to photograph. Even then, the taste was good. I can only imagine it would have been even better hot.
But I did promise you a comedy of errors, and the octopus tentacles not fitting into the head alone does not count.
There was this.
Yes, I did not have the lid on the blender and did not realize the switch on the base was turned to “on” when I plugged the whole thing into the electric outlet.
In my panic, the first thing I did was run away rather than unplug it. So while I was already covered in almond and squid juice 10 feet away from the blender, my kitchen proceeded to get a good saucing for a few more seconds.
I thought my apartment would smell like fish for years.
- Ken Albala, Fish in Renaissance Dietary Theory, In Harlan Walker (Eds.), Fish: Food from the Waters (9–19). Totnes, Devon,England: Oxford Symposium/Prospect https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=cop-facbooks
- Joan Santanach, ed. and Robin Vogelzang, trans., The Book of Sent Soví: Medieval Recipes from Catalonia (Barcelona: Barcino Tamesis, 2014), 157.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.