Normally I’m not one for esoteric ingredients. Most of the time, I’ll go for fresh and familiar over strange and exotic. But there are exceptions to everything, and here’s one of them: I love squid ink. Madly. I’d never cooked with it until recently, but after making my first-ever squid ink paella, I’m completely and utterly smitten.
To my mind, there are few more intriguing foods than black paella. In Catalan it’s called “arros negre,” or black rice, and it’s really unlike any other rice dish you’re likely to encounter. Fleshy pieces of squid or cuttlefish are cooked deep into the rice, and then the whole thing is tinted black with a healthy dose of ink. Where an ordinary paella is bright, flashy, a riot of meats and vegetables, this is something else altogether: subtler, calmer, with a darker and richer flavor. The ink stains the outsides of the rice a deep grayish-black; the squid pieces relax into tender nuggets scattered through the rice. There’s a hint of tomato and pepper, and a little prick of smoked paprika, but the dish itself seems to murmur rather than shout.
So what does the squid ink add, exactly? I tend to think of it in the same way I do turmeric: its biggest draw is its dramatic color, but it also has a muted flavor of its own. Most descriptions will tell you that squid ink tastes, “briny,” or “like the sea,” which is entirely unhelpful. Clams and mussels taste “like the sea.” Good-quality fish tastes “like the sea.” Squid ink is more than that. It’s briny, yes, but it also has a slight iodine-like tang to it, a kind of dark rustiness. To me, the flavor is a little reminiscent of saffron, but heavier and just a wee bit saltier. It takes a fair amount of ink for that flavor to come through, and it suits rice and other starches particularly well, since they can robe themselves in it without competing for attention. I used a full tablespoon of ink in my paella, and it was not at all too much–in fact, I could have stood a bit more inkiness.
This is definitely something to make when you have people to impress, or an extravagant event to celebrate. Squid ink is expensive, but squid and rice are relatively cheap, so it’s easy to make a big pan of rice look more indulgent than it is. It’s also just as delicious at room temperature as it is warm, making it surprisingly low-impact for a multi-course affair. I made this as the main course for a tapas party, and was able to set it by with a towel over it while Sam and I prepped the rest of the food. And, of course, since Spanish rice dishes like this one must be eaten directly from the pan, you get to bring a heaping pan of gleaming black rice to the table and bask in all the oohs and ahhs.