Sunday, 24 February 2013

If you ever happen upon an octopus

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When calling by the Kincumba fish co-op on the NSW central coast recently, I happened upon a very good size but lonely looking octopus nestled against the glass display case.

‘Tell me about the octopus’ I requested.

‘It has eight legs’ came the fisherman’s retort. ‘Can’t tell you much more than that, love.’

‘Well I am delighted to see that you have such a fresh one in stock’ I enthused.

‘Just in this afternoon; she’s all yours if you want her.’

‘Has it been tenderized?’ I ventured. 

Spouse’s eyebrows shot to the roof. Snorts of laughter from the fisherman.

‘Listen love, I don’t do octopus myself. Sometimes they get caught in the nets. I would throw them back, ‘cept people sometimes ask for one. To answer your question though - No, it has not been tenderized.’ 

‘Any idea what I need to do with it then?’

‘Gotta cement mixer?’ More snorts of laughter, spouse too by now.

Not in the mood for dealing with the only other option - live lobster, I produced $30.00.  A 2.3kg freshly caught octopus seemed an inconsequential investment in the scheme of things. ‘It will be very, very good or very, very bad’ I muttered as we gathered up our package and climbed back into the car. We stashed it in the bottom of the fridge and joined our friends for dinner. Their encouragement of me pursuing this culinary adventure spurred me on. Without my substantial library of cookbooks to draw upon, I was on the internet first thing the next morning, trying to figure out how on earth I could transform this decidedly unattractive beast into a splendid dish.

Research on Google proved difficult. Ask five people, you are almost certain to get five different answers. Recommendations, such as floating corks in the water and only cook in a copper pan are the first bits of folk lore to eradicate. Harold McGee, my go - to - guy when a scientific approach to cooking is necessary, is a reliable source of information, if not particularly instructive in his preferred methodologies. 

Some sites tell you how to clean an octopus but not how to cook it. It all took some considerable deconstructing! In the end, guided by Harold McGee’s scientific reasoning, I referred to several recipes and got on with it. To my delight, when cross referencing with Frank Camora and Richard Cornish’s Movida cookbook once home, I discovered that we concurred on most points. Once friends and family devoured the results with suitable enthusiasm, I got to wondering whether I may not be premature in believing that octopus may now be mainstream enough to write about and encourage people to cook it at home.

Getting octopus onto the table involves the following basic steps: Buying / acquiring; Cleaning; Tenderising; Cooking; Dressing and Serving 

Buying / Acquiring

There is always the happy possibility when on holiday that your local fish co-op has just hauled a suitable specimen from the depths and is prepared to part with it at a reasonable price. Less likely, you have caught your own. Ordinarily, you will purchase an octopus from your local fish market. You will see these sold whole when around 2kg, which is ideal, or conveniently cut into a number of tentacles of 1 - 2kg weight. Do not baulk at the idea of buying frozen octopus though, it is generally accepted to be the preferred product. Firstly, frozen octopus is already cleaned and secondly, the freezing process is said to tenderize the flesh of the octopus.

Cleaning

There are all sorts of eager beavers on YouTube offering earnest instruction on how to clean an octopus. Frankly, having cleaned calamari and sepia over the years, I find cleaning octopus a comparatively easy matter. I recommend wearing secure, fitted rubber kitchen gloves when handling fresh octopus because it is very slippery and slimy and the suckers adhering to your skin can be rather disconcerting. Essentially you need to cut off the head at the point between the eyes and the ‘body’ otherwise referred to as the ‘skirt’. You then simply push the small beak out through the top opening created and discard it. It only gets complicated if you want to eat the head. I refer you back to YouTube to manage this frugality. I was not tempted.

Tenderising

If you have frozen octopus, all you need do is thaw and drain it before cooking. If you have a lovely fresh octopus some attention to it with a meat mallet or similar is said to be of benefit. Not all holiday houses come stocked with a meat mallet but between you and me, I found the wooden cocktail muddler served the purpose well enough. Arrange the legs around the body on a large clean bench and firmly beat the flesh along the tentacles. This will flatten them slightly and can be very satisfying. I only did this for a few minutes and was doubtful at the time of any benefit being achieved. There are two possibilities:

  1. Beating the octopus is of dubious value when cooked the way I cooked it.
  2. A few polite taps are all that is ever required and the cement mixer idea is a man thought only.

Cooking

I prefer cooking an octopus of 2 - 2.5kg weight. Once the head is removed weight will reduce by about 400g. 

  1. Rinse the octopus well in running water. 
  2. Simultaneously bring to the boil two large pots, half filled with unsalted water. 
  3. Gloves on, gently place the octopus into the first pot and leave it there until the water stops boiling, remove it immediately and carefully drop it into the second pot of boiling water, allowing the first pot to return to the boil. Repeat this process, dipping the octopus into each pot three times. 
  4. If the octopus is too big to be fully covered in water in one of the pots, do as I did and remove it from the water, cut it in half and cook half in each pot. 
  5. Turn the heat down to the barest simmer, ensure the octopus is well covered with water, partly cover the pot.
  6. After 40 minutes pierce the ‘skirt’ with the sharp end of a fine, sharp knife to check for doneness. It can take up to 1 hour for a 1kg piece of octopus to become tender. Once the knife easily penetrates the flesh, remove the octopus from the water and slice off a section of a thick part of one of the tentacles. Once it is tender to the bite it is cooked.
  7. Reserve the cooking water if you intend making a risotto or cooking potatoes. 
  8. It is up to you to keep the skin on or not. Larger octopus suckers can get full of gunk and I prefer to strip them and the skin from the flesh. This is easily done, wearing gloves, running the tentacles between your thumb and forefinger, stripping the skin and suckers as you go.

Dressing and Serving

Once cooked, the tentacles can be cut into lengths according to what you are doing with it next. Options include, making a seafood salad by combining it with other seafood such as cooked and shelled prawns, clams or mussels and tossed in a garlicky dressing of olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper and finely chopped parsley.  The addition of black olives and finely chopped red onion is delicious. Classically, octopus is layered over boiled, peeled potatoes, cut to the same size as the octopus and once again, dressed as for the seafood salad. To grill octopus, you must cook it first and marinate it in olive oil before sizzling on a very hot barbecue. Dress with olive oil and parsley and lemon juice. The gelatinous nature of octopus makes it a no brainer for a terrine I believe. Dress it as for the seafood salad, line a terrine mould with plastic wrap, fill with the dressed octopus, cover and place a weight on top and refrigerate for 24 hours or so. To serve, immerse the terrine in hot water for a few seconds and invert onto a serving plate. Remove the plastic. Slice with a warm, sharp knife. To be honest, I haven’t tried these latter variations myself but that is what I plan to do when I next happen upon an octopus!

Sunday Relish

Elizabeth Peddey (aka Sunday Relish) has been The Tribune’s food expert since 2009. She also consults in Meal and Pantry Planning, Food Shopping and Entertaining and offers Cooking Classes. Email: epeddey@bigpond.net.au Ph: 0419 505 438.