Donna versus the cuttlefish

Some facts about cuttlefish:

  1. Along with octopus and squid, cuttlefish are classed as molluscs 
  2. Traditionally, sepia ink is derived from cuttlefish ink
  3. Cuttlefish have three hearts.
Perhaps the most important fact to note is that they produce A LOT of ink.  I pondered this as I wandered home with my 1.6kg cuttlefish, ready to prepare it in my entirely white kitchen.
I had visions of my little galley looking like a scene from a black and white gorefest, and remaining that way for a fairly lengthy time having been scared by the tales told in the River Cottage Fish book of how fishermen hate cuttlefish for the mess the ink makes, how permanent the stains of cuttlefish ink are and of the smell that hangs around for days on a ship that’s landed an inky little beast.
So we decamped to the garden.
I set up a makeshift gutting station and enrolled Matt to document the process for your amusement/education.  The full gory roll is on Flickr, and the edited highlights below.  I had a copy of River Cottage Fish to (inky) hand, and a tiny little bit of knowledge of doing this to a squid a couple of years ago and I managed it fine but if you’re at all squeamish, I suggest you get your fish supplier to do this for you.  Otherwise, dive in (ideally wearing a black apron, dark clothes and if you’re indoors, have cloths a-plenty on hand to mop up stray splatters of ink.) You’ll also need a big chopping board (or two), a sink or bucket of water is handy to rinse the cuttlefish in so you can see what you’re doing. The wrapping the cuttlefish came in will be a good inky receptacle for the bits you’ll be throwing away.  And of course you’ll need a sharp knife: ideally one filleting, one regular small kitchen knife, but if you don’t have a filleting knife, you’ll still get on just fine.
DDD readers, meet the cuttlefish.  Already covered in ink.

 First things first, grasp the head firmly just behind its eyes and pull.  Hard.

The head should pop off, leaving a trail of innards.  Scoop these out as best you can and discard them.

Put the head to one side while you tackle the body.  If you can stop staring at its eyes…..

Inside the body is the cuttlebone, most usually seen in a budgie’s cage.  I couldn’t get it to “just pop out” so made a little incision in the rounded pointy part of the body, where I could feel the end of the bone.  I could then get my fingers round the end of it and pulled it out.

More fun cuttlefish facts: the cuttlebone gives the cuttlefish buoyancy, is made of aragonite and has been known to be used by jewellers who whittle moulds used to cast small objects.

Fun facts over.  Cuttlebone out, there’s a beak to remove from the tentacle end.  If Alien gives you nightmares, you may want to look away now….

Still with me?  Okay, you need to squeeze this sucker out by pushing upwards from underneath.  Makes sense when you try to do it, I promise.  Seeing the beak emerge is freaky and satisfying in equal measures.  Once it pops right up, pull it off and discard.

I used the garden tap to rinse the tentacle end off, and had the body in a bucket of water at my side.  Very, very inky water.

So now you need to take the tentacles away from the head, and then chop them up.

First, slice off the two fish-catching long tentacles off near the body and put them to one side.  This is the start of your “good bits” collection.

Then use your eye to judge where the meaty tentacles end and the body begins and slice through to separate the tentacles (which you’re keeping) from the eyes and head (which you’re not).

Chuck away the head and give the tentacles a good wash so you can see what you’re doing. Separate the tentacles into bite sized chunks, adding them to your good pile.  Run your finger over the suckers to find the particularly large hard rings that support the big suckers, and chuck them.  Don’t worry too much about the small ones, they magically disappear when you cook the fish (or get soft, or something…I didn’t find myself picking out what feels like contact lenses from the stew I made, so one way or another, they don’t pose a problem).

So, covered in ink?  Check.  You’re not done yet though.  Onwards!

Time to go back to the body.  You now need to take the wings off the body, and the thick membrane-y skin from everything.

Again, I couldn’t get the wings to just “pop off” by bending them backwards towards each other (maybe this is easier on smaller cuttlefish?) so used my filleting knife to start me off.  Once I’d cut between the skin and flesh, it was easy to run my fingers along and separate the wings from the body.

Do the same to remove the other wing.

The wings will come off attached to the lovely patterned skin from the top of the cuttlefish.  

Use a clean tea towel (and having washed it twice to try in vain to get rid of the fishy smell and staining of the ink, one you’re not especially fond of) to grasp the skin in one hand, and pull the white flesh away with your other.

Now separated, you just need to trim off the transparent cartilage from the edge of the wing, and pull the skin off using the tea towel method and you’re done.  Add the wings to your good pile.

Use the same tea towel stripping technique to remove the skin from the body of the cuttlefish.

Try not splatter too much ink around.

There be a few bits of membrane left on the body, so use your finger to slide between the membrane and body.  The membrane is quite tough when cooked, so the more you remove, the more tender the cooked cuttlefish will be.

Revert to the knife for tricky or tough bits and to trim any bits round the edges you’re not sure about.  But that’s it, you’re done!  And I’d wager, pretty inky!

If its any reassurance, the chopping boards both washed up fine, and the washing up of them didn’t stain my sink, so maybe I’d have been okay in the kitchen?  However, the tea towel did not escape unscathed, so I suspect my suggestion of wearing dark clothing is probably a wise one. Of course, if you have one of those natty SOCA-style papery boiler suits, that would also cut a dash.

Duly dismembered, the cuttlefish clearly made its way into the kitchen, and was transformed into dinner.  Recipe coming right up…..

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