Thursday, December 25, 2008

Octopus and potato salad

Now don't freak out at the mention of octopus. If I hadn't told you it was octopus in the recipe, you might think it was shrimp - or lobster. In fact, when cooked properly, octopus not only looks like bits of lobster tail, but even tastes something like it - although more tender to the bite. I've eaten it many times, but my favorite octopus memory happened a couple of years ago off the coast of Sardinia when we met Ignazina and Gemi, owners of a fishing boat called "Sampey" and a "Pescaturismo" business.

We were the only clients that day, so rather than give us the full day's excursion, which included a stop for lunch at a nearby island called Cavoli, they instead invited us out to sea to watch them haul in their catch for free. More tourists were booked for the following day, so Gemi and Igna asked us to come back and they'd repeat the fishing excursion. This time, they'd include an afternoon mooring at Cavoli, a tiny spit of land where Igna and Gemi cooked the day's catch while we explored the island and swam in the turquoise Mediterranean sea. Since then, I always think of that day when I cook octopus. I don't thrash mine upon the rocks to tenderize it the way Igna did, but it tastes great nonetheless. Maybe not as good as what I ate that sunny day on that speck of an island, but when you can't get to Sardinia, hey, you've just got to figure out some other way to recapture the moment.

Warning: Octopus shrinks A LOT during cooking, so this will not serve more than a couple of people as a main dish salad. I served it as an appetizer, along with other offerings on Christmas Eve. It was a big hit and was gobbled up in no time.

1 octopus, about 2 pounds (I bought mine fresh, but you can also use frozen.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium size potatoes, boiled and peeled
salt
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic
freshly ground black pepper
dash of red pepper flakes, optional
2 T. minced parsley, optional

The key trick to having a tender octopus is in the cooking. It's a little daunting the first time you pick up a raw octopus but be brave and dig in. I bought one half of an octopus, already cut by the fish-monger. The next time I make this recipe, I'm going to use a whole one and double the recipe so I can have more to go around.

I have read many different techniques for cooking octopus - from slow simmers in water, to putting a cork in the water to tenderize the octopus. Others say cooking it in water can "seize up" the octopus and toughen it. This method I outline uses no water, but rather lets the octopus cook in its own liquid. It works perfectly and produces a succulent octopus. Just don't buy baby octopus. They're too small and chewy and you won't get large enough pieces.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Put the octopus in a pan with the olive oil and no other liquid. Place over low heat, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. The octopus will have released a lot of liquid. Transfer the octopus and the liquid to a glass or pyrex baking dish and cover. Bake for about one hour. Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. It will be very purple in color and will have shrunk significantly. Cut off the top of the head and the little pointy sharp beak and discard. Peel away the purple skin and most of the suckers will peel off too. Rinse under cool water and pat dry. Cut into bite-sized pieces and put in a bowl.

Cut the potatoes into small pieces and add to the octopus. Make a dressing with the remaining ingredients and pour over the octopus. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.


Igna and part of the day's catch on "Sampey."

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