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Braised Stuffed Calamari

Braised Stuffed Calamari
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

These appealing packets of calamari, stuffed with a piquant mix of bread crumbs, capers and sharp cheese, are easier to make than you might think. You can prepare the stuffing and fill the calamari ahead of time. Refrigerate until you are ready to cook them.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

12 cleaned calamari, both sacs and tentacles

3 cups fresh bread crumbs, lightly toasted in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes

3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

4 cloves garlic, 2 minced and 2 left whole but flattened with the blade of a knife

1/2 cup finely chopped mixed giardiniera*

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano (optional)

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

A generous pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 cups fresh tomato sauce (or best quality commercial tomato sauce)

With a sharp chef's knife, chop the tentacle crowns of the calamari into small pieces and place them in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the bread crumbs, parsley, minced garlic, giardiniera, capers, cheeses (if using), salt, black pepper and cayenne (if using). Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and mix well to achieve a stuffing consistency that is light and moist, but not too wet and not too dry.

Use your fingers to stuff the calamari sacs, picking up a pinch of stuffing at a time and working it into the opening at the top of the sac. Stuff each sac carefully (they can tear easily) until it is almost but not quite full — the calamari will shrink as it cooks so don't overstuff. Secure the top of each stuffed sac with a toothpick and set aside on a platter.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, deep skillet or braising pan placed over a medium flame. Add the 2 whole garlic cloves and let them sizzle, stirring them around a bit, until they begin to brown. Press down on the garlic with a wooden or silicon spatula to extract their juices, then remove and discard the cloves.

Raise the heat to medium-high and arrange the calamari in the oil in a single layer (be careful of spattering oil). Cook for about 2 minutes, until lightly browned on the bottom, then turn and brown on the other side, about 2 minutes more. Pour in the wine and sprinkle the lemon juice over the calamari and let the liquid bubble away for a minute or so. Stir in the tomato sauce. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan.

Cook the calamari for 15 minutes, then turn, using tongs. Cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the calamari is tender (a toothpick inserted should puncture the sac and slide in and out easily). Add a splash of water or wine if the sauce seems too thick.

Transfer the calamari to a serving platter and spoon the sauce on top of them. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve immediately.

*Giardiniera is the Italian name for pickled vegetables, most often found as a mix of carrots, cauliflower, pearl onions and red peppers. You can find bottled giardiniera at many supermarkets as well as gourmet food shops and Italian delicatessens.

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