Bringing a Skewer to a Swordfight.

Whoever invented the whole genre of 'Food on a stick' either deserves our profound thanks, or to be made to go and sit in the corner.

Men in general, and South African men in particular, have a fundamental psychosis when it comes to weekend sporting events. We can’t just allow them to merely pass by. You know…perhaps taking note of the score, maybe even going as far as to sit in front of the TV for at least the second half, when we should actually be fixing that thing that hasn’t been working for a while now.

No no.

We clear the schedule, cast off every bit of common sense we’ve ever had, dive in headfirst, swim about and then rub it in our faces like it’s the cure for being an idiot – which is the long way of saying that it’s very very important that we make the most of The Big Sporting Weekend. Of which we in South Africa have many.

Of course, the expectation that comes with these things is enormous: the sun must hold up its end of the bargain, the host must under no circumstances run out of charcoal or ice, the braai (a South African term for ‘barbecue’, but better and more full of testosterone) cannot under any condition fail to cook the entire farm’s worth of meat that will inevitably need taking care of, someone’s girlfriend/wife/shag must provide a potato-salad (any other type of salad will be welcomed with smiles and heartfelt thanks, but then ignored for the rest of the day (because no-one wants to look like a salad-loving nancy boy), while the person who made it pitifully encourages everyone to try some “because it’s delicious”) and obviously the appropriate team needs to win. You see, failing to sufficiently wrestle every last ounce of “event” out of a weekend rugby/soccer/cricket/who-gives-a-shit-as-long-as-there-are-commentators match, is as much of a faux pas as accidentally punching a small child in the face.

Unless you’re from Uitenhage, where an accidental face-punching is pretty much how you say ‘hi’.

We shouldn’t forget that this is also an altar that’s attended to by the artery-hating high priests of mayonnaise, mielie pap and beer, which is to be expected – considering that “grilled things with sauce on it and some kind of starch nearby” is kinda the go-to cooking province of men world-wide.

Which is why arriving at a friend’s house for the Super 14 Semifinal Saturday braai with distinctly non-macho calamari skewers was risky. At best, I’d be laughed at while I wasn’t looking. At worst, someone would ‘accidentally’ drop them in the bin before they ever got within a mile of the grill (most of this isn’t true, my friends aren’t nearly that mean).  Either way, it’s a little bit like being the guy who brings quiche to the weekly poker game. Stunned silence. Sniggers. But I wasn’t going to let being alternative get in the way of trying something different on the braai – which, when you strip it down to the essentials, is still the ultimate way of cooking anything – with all those natural smoky flavours and a heat that doesn’t dry out whatever it is that’s being slapped down on it.

Plus, I have my whole well-documented ‘nervousness of cooking seafood’ thing – and so this was part of my continuing attempt to get comfortable with the cooking of my favourite sea-dwelling friends. Because ultimately who doesn’t like calamari right?  But it can’t always be about coating the buggers in breadcrumbs and then deep-frying the crap out of them.  And so (freshly inspired by Rick Stein) this seemed like a good alternative at the time.

Besides, on this particular day, the right teams won – so no one was really paying too much attention to the guy who brought bamboo skewers to a red meat rumble.

Braai’d Calamari Skewers

Saucy and Juicy, like my friend Leanne.

Ingredients (serves 6)

6 whole calamari pouches

Marinade

2 tbspn fish sauce

2 tbspn lime juice

2 tbspn brown sugar

1 tspn cumin seeds

1 tspn chili flakes

1 tspn coriander seeds

Sauce

2 mild chilies (de-seeded and finely chopped)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (finely chopped)

1 large garlic clove

2 tbspn fish sauce

3 tbspn lime juice

2 tbspn brown sugar

half a handful of roasted peanuts (crushed into smallish ‘crumbs’)

a handful of fresh coriander (finely chopped)

What to do

Soak some bamboo skewers in water for about an hour or so.

Toast the cumin, coriander and chili flakes in a dry pan until they brown a bit and start to get really fragrant. You should keep swirling the pan around, just so it all doesn’t catch and burn. Then empty the spices into a pestle and mortar and grind it up into a rough powder. Add the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar and mix it up until the sugar is dissolved. This wont look like a lot of liquid – but trust me on this, a little goes a long way.

Meanwhile slice the calamari pouches down one side so that you can flatten the whole thing out. Then cut 4 strips out of each pouch and then, in a flat dish cover them with the marinade and leave it to soak for about an hour, longer if you can.

For the sauce, finely chop the fresh chili, ginger and the garlic and gently fry them all in a pan with a bit of olive oil. Once they’re all softened and just starting to go brown, whip it all out – and add the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, crushed peanuts and fresh coriander. At this point I like to empty this mix into a small jar with a lid that seals properly, give it a monster shake and then leave it all to get to know each other until it’s needed.

Take the calamari strips and thread them onto the skewers – about three strips per skewer, and keep whatever marinade is left for basting.

All dressed up and waiting for their turn on the grill.

At this point you’ll need the braai (barbecue) to be good and hot. An excellent indication of a good cooking heat is if you’re able to hold your hand about two inches over the grill for about 3 seconds. Any less and its too hot, more and you don’t have enough heat (the night I cooked mine the fire wasn’t quite coping, and so I had to finish them off in pan).

Size isn't everything, okay?

Place the skewers on the grill and cook them for about 10 minutes on each side. There should be a lovely, juicy, slightly charred quality about them when they come off the fire and onto a platter. Give the sauce a last shake and cover the calamari evenly.

Don’t worry – you can still eat these, drink beer and look (somewhat) like a man.

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