It's late summer, the days are getting shorter, the kids are back at school and the limes are cheap and plentiful. The perfect equation for celebrating by knocking together a couple of lime-laced cocktails, sitting on the back veranda and enjoying a caprioska, a Thai salad and wondering why it's so quiet - oh crap, the kids!
My favourite Thai salad is seared calamari with pomelo, and I was reminded of this combination when I found calamari from the New South Wales south coast at the markets. Calamari, cuttlefish and squid tend to be interchangeable but, whichever you use, they need to be super fresh and still in their skins.
We've all had that rubbery stuff passed off as salt and pepper squid, but true calamari is a wonderful thing to behold. They come as small, cute baby versions, all the way up to something like the poulpe wrapped around the nautilus in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Freshness is key to being able to wash the skin off, after which they can be frozen, but if cooked properly they'll be a tender as Tony Abbott in election mode.
Once you've had freshly caught calamari, as we used to when we lived on the Tasman Peninsula years ago, you get to crave it, because there's nothing like this to suck up the flavour in a dish like a Thai salad.
Buying calamari is easy as they show their freshness so well in those doleful eyes, which should be plump and shiny. I'd generally grab the biggest I can find, seeing as, like most aquatic dwellers, wine and middle-aged men, they get better with life experience. Also, the colder the seas, the slower the growth and the better the fish. That's why you stay clear of warm waters if you can help it.
If you see just plain white hoods, it's probably frozen dart squid that could have come from anywhere and, like Facebooking while drunk, it is to be avoided.
Cleaning cephalopods is a little tricky. They are gross, right? However, if you are careful it's no problem. First, pull out the tentacles and legs along with the body in one piece. You can't use much inside here unless you have a constitution of our handyman, Ray Smith, back in Tasmania, who'd just whack the soft roe on toast and wolf it down.
Cut off the legs and tentacles and put them in one pile; we'll come back to them. Pull out the bone, which on calamari is a translucent feather-like thing that looks like plastic (as opposed to cuttlefish, which have the white thing you can put in your budgie cage).
Pull off the wings and keep them too, it's all about being organised. Cut the hood down one side to the tip and open up into a flat sheet. Very carefully remove any membrane from the inside and the skin from the outside. If it's fresh, this should be easily done under water.
Make a cross-cut pattern with a very sharp knife or blade, slicing only a third of the way through the flesh, then slice into long strips. Clean up the wings and legs in the same way, removing the skin as best as you can. Cut the tentacles into shorter lengths and toss them all together. Try to get them as dry as possible before cooking. So it's not the easiest process, but once you get your head around this, nothing will faze you.
Thai food is a pretty unique cuisine: very aromatic; a balance of sweet, sour and acid; and that punchy heat and spice. The salads have lots of herbs and aromatic vegetables like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, a dressing containing sweet, salt, acid and heat, and sometimes also bitterness and umami. Common to all Thai dressings is sugar, for sweetness and to balance acid and heat. For delicate ingredients such as fish and molluscs, you would use white sugar, and for meatier ingredients, the more intense palm sugar.
Salt is normally in the form of fish sauce, which has the added taste of umami - that rich, delicious character we associate with stocks, mushrooms and aged cheese.
For acid, it's limes, or richer tamarind, or vinegars. A rule of thumb is to use twice the amount of lime juice as the other two, and if you're using seafood you can increase the acid. Limes give not only the acid needed to balance sweetness, but a beautiful perfume.
I'm not sure what planets aligned to make limes at their cheapest just as summer is waning. But it's a happy providence, a combination as fitting as smoked pork bellies and chicken eggs.
Even though we associate limes and their buddies, chillies, with Thai cuisine, neither are indigenous to the region. Like most citrus and spices, limes came to the world from the Middle East, and chillies came from the Americas. But, for me, limes say Thai food and late summer says salads outside.
An all-purpose dressing that really sums up the flavour combinations is nam jim. It's basically what we just spoke about, with a few aromatics such as garlic, coriander root and green or red chillies, or both. You can make it up in bulk as it will last a week or so.
Just as an aside, this is absolutely brilliant mixed with equal quantities of vodka and topped up with tomato juice garnished with mint and coriander leaf. Try it if you like a bloody mary. I know I'm going on a lot about cocktails. I've given up grog and caffeine for February for reasons that I forget, and I seem to be dreaming a lot about what drinks I'll have in March. I'll keep you and my therapist posted.
Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au
Calamari and pomelo salad
2 medium-sized calamari, prepared as above
2 tbsp oyster sauce
grapeseed oil for frying
2 red Asian eschalots, peeled and finely sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, white flesh, finely sliced
6 kaffir lime leaves, shredded very finely
1 bunch coriander, leaves only
2-3 stalks mint, chopped
2-3 tbsp nam jin (see recipe below)
To prepare the pomelo, cut off all the skin and pith, this is very thick, then cut each segment out of the white skin. Break apart into pieces.
Mix the prepared calamari with the oyster sauce. Have all the other ingredients ready.
Heat a grill plate to very hot, smoking, add a smear of grapeseed oil and very quickly sear the calamari, turning over, and as soon as it turns opaque, remove. This will only take a minute at most if the grill is hot enough - and speed will prevent the seafood turning to rubber. Mix in the pomelo, then the eschalots, lemongrass, lime leaves, herbs and nam jin dressing.
3 coriander roots
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp chopped galangal
100ml lime juice
40ml fish sauce
40g palm sugar, grated
¼ tsp white pepper
2-4 small green chillies, chopped
With a mortar and pestle, grind the coriander roots, garlic and galangal until it is pureed. Stir in the other ingredients. Shake well before use.