The cuisine of Croatia can be quite diverse from the meat-rich inland, dishes laced with truffle in Istria and the seafood-heavy coastline. My parents lived far from the coast when they grew up in that part of the world, chowing on food prepared in a very simple fashion. Meats like duck, pig and pheasant were generally hunted and fish was caught from the freshwater rivers, all of which were stewed, grilled or spitted. A bit of cabbage and potato salad, some bread and the meal was complete. Simple and tasty.
I remember on my only trip to Croatia back in 2002 how the food style changed as we got closer to the coast with the presence of many types of seafood on menus, even pasta and pizza thanks to Italy’s close proximity. Hot sunshine, the deep blue waters of the Adriatic, cold bottle of local vino and freshly cooked seafood. Can’t get better than that. A dish that can be seen on menus all along the gorgeous coastline is this – crni rižoto – a flavoursome risotto blackened using the fresh ink from squid or cuttlefish.
Cleaning these little critters can get a little messy and when you’re dealing with ink it’s best you wear gloves incase one of the ink sacks burst. It really does stain! Alternatively you can buy pre-cleaned squid and cuttlefish and grab a sachet of ink, although it’s just not the same as when you know you’ve done it all yourself, right down to squeezing the ink paste out of the silvery little sack. I’m really not sure where I got this recipe from as it has been in my folder for many years. The final flourish of pan-fried garlic tentacles is my own touch as is the addition of black Hawaiian salt, something I recently picked up in New York.
To clean the cuttlefish: wash it well under running water. Tear through the back and discard the backbone and insides, carefully separating the small silvery ink sack and setting it aside. Peel the skin from the flesh and discard. Cut the tentacles just below the eyes, squeeze the beak out from the centre of the tentacles and discard. Set the tentacles to one side.
To clean the squid: basically follow the same method as the cuttlefish but tear off the two “wings” near the point. These can be eaten as well and all you need to do is peel the skin off them. Remember to set the tentacles aside with the ones from the cuttlefish. Keep all the ink sacks in a little dish on the side.
Slice the cuttlefish and squid into approximate 2cm x 4cm strips. To extract the ink, break the sacks and squeeze out the paste. Add a few drops of water to make it a smooth consistency.
Heat a large saucepan with the 1/3 cup olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the large chopped onion and when soft, add the sliced cuttlefish and squid, not the tentacles, and cook until lightly golden. Add the 4 cloves garlic and chopped parsley, stirring to combine. Pour in the wine, vinegar and then stir in the ink paste. Cook for a further 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Add the rice to the saucepan along with an extra tablespoon of oil. Stir the rice into the seafood and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add enough hot water to cover the rice completely, reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, until rice is al dente. Stir occasionally. If the rice dries out before it is cooked just add small amounts of hot water each time, stirring, until cooked. Do not let it stick!
In a separate small frying pan heat the extra tablespoon of oil and sauté the chopped ½ onion over medium heat until soft. Add the reserved tentacles and garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Throw in a little chopped parsley and salt.
To serve, dish up the risotto in individual bowls, top with the sautéed tentacles, more parsley and a cheek of fresh lemon. A side salad of fresh leaves, glass of vino and crusty bread wouldn’t go astray, either.