I am probably going to get a reputation on food52 as a cook who only makes pasta! But when this contest was announced, I knew that I wanted to submit this dish. This pasta has many cherished memories associated with it. It has been the centerpiece of my family's Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember having Christmas Eve dinner at my grandparents' house. These were huge, chaotic, festive affairs with about thirty family members -- aunts, uncles and cousins. We usually did not have literally seven fishes, but dinner always included two kinds of baccala (cod). One was dried cod that was turned into a salad dressed with olive oil; the other was fresh cod, baked in the oven. There were always fried smelts and anchovies. And occasionally there would even be octopus. But the highlight of the dinner (at least for me) was the pasta with squid sauce. Of course, my grandmother always served the tentacles as well as the rings, which some of my cousins found rather disgusting. They would eat sugar and butter sandwiches instead, but that's another story.
Now that I have grown up and moved away, our Christmas Eve dinners are more intimate affairs. But I still make this pasta every Christmas Eve for my family. Now, it gives me great pleasure to see my six-year-old daughter embrace this dish just as I did, so many years ago. She calls this recipe Spaghetti with Rings (because of the shape the squid is cut into). So that's what we call this dish now.
The spirit of this dish is very much what my great-grandmother and my grandmother would have made. But I have tinkered a bit with the recipe ingredients and techniques. First of all, I strongly recommend splurging on San Marzano tomatoes. Because this is such a quick-cooking sauce, you want the best tomato flavor that you can possibly get. My ancestors would not have used shellfish in this dish, but I love the addition of them. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I use local clams, but mussels are also a nice choice. I cook the squid for far less time than my grandmother would have. She was an excellent cook, but as my father often said, her squid was a bit too rubbery.
To get the optimum basil and garlic flavor into this delicate sauce, I have adapted a technique that NYC chef Andrew Carmellini uses in his excellent cookbook, Urban Italian. Basically, you infuse olive oil with garlic and basil and add it to the sauce at the end of the cooking time rather than at the beginning. It adds a really wonderful layer of flavor to the sauce.
And while I know that most foodies frown on putting cheese on a pasta sauce that contains fish, my family has always garnished this dish with Pecorino Romano, and I continue to do so too. However, purists could make breadcrumbs out of stale bread, toast the bread crumbs and a little bit of salt in some warm olive oil, and use the breadcrumbs as a garnish for this pasta. —cookinginvictoria