Saturday, 7 July 2012

20,000 Leagues in the Dutchoven or My Spicy Octopus Stew

I love octopus and squid. Fried, in sushi, in fancy pasta sauces (seafood pasta is a big classic Christmas treat with Italians), you name it. But I had never prepared and cooked one before. The already sliced frozen stuff doesn't count, especially when you can get your hands on a whole, 2 pounds fresh octopus rather cheaply. I am on vacation, and I was in an experimental mood, so I finally gave in to my curiosity, and bought an octopus. Actually, half an octopus...

(In case you are wondering, the difference between an octopus and a squid is that the squid has two long tentacles on top of the eight arms. The squid also has an elongated head mantle, as where the octopus' mantle is more bulbous-shaped. Otherwise, their physiology is relatively similar.)

I can't really understand why some people find squid and octopus repulsive; I personally think they are some of the coolest looking creatures on the planet! Granted, they can be a bit freaky, as they are animals with very high problem-solving abilities (they can work their way out of a maze faster than rats!), alien-like body structures (no skeleton of any kind, eight legs, 3 hearts, a mantle and a beak!), the capacity to change their color to camouflage, and a squishy texture perfectly adapted to their underwater environment. But many cultures have been using them in their cuisine for ages. Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Hawaii, Tunisia: these countries' cooks have been using these cephalopods to keep their families fed since the dawn of time.

I was inspired by a recipe for stewed octopus (polpi in umido) in David Rocco's "Dolce Vita", but I thought his basic stew recipe needed a few more ingredients, so I tweaked it, keeping it very Italian and flavorful. Stewing octopus in its own juices is the best way to make it nice and tender and to avoid the rubbery texture most people dread. If you plan on cooking octopus a different way, it's better to blanch it in boiling water first, to tenderize it (or do it the old-fashioned Greek way and beat it against a big rock... and I am not even kidding).

You can whip this recipe up with either one 2-pound octopus or with the equivalent quantity of baby-octopi (those can usually be found frozen in Chinese grocery stores), and you'll get 4 servings. The octopus I got was actually half an octopus, and it had already been cleaned and trimmed; all I had to do was chop the tentacles. If you buy your octopus whole and are squirmy, you can have a fishmonger clean and prepare your little cephalopod for you, but if you feel like taking down a miniature kraken, here is how it's done!

Turn the octopus inside out (yes, yes, like a sock) and rinse it under warm running water for a minute. With a sharp pairing knife, remove the beak (located right in the middle of the tentacles) by cutting around it and scooping it out. It is easier to cut the mantle from the tentacles to remove all the innards and clean it; the eyes and ink-sac have to be discarded. Once that's done, run the mantle under cold running water to get rid of all the remaining grit. Give the tentacles a good rinse too, and pat everything dry with paper towels. Lay the octopus on a cutting board and chop it up in bite-sized pieces (you may skip this step if you are using baby-octopi, which are already small enough).

Once your octopus is nice and clean, you are ready to make polpi in umido alla Gabriella!

1 2-pound octopus, cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces (or the equivalent quantity of baby-octopi, cleaned)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 cup dry white wine
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 (14-ounce) can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon oregano
1 handful black olives, pitted (optional)
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, finely cut
Sea salt and ground pepper
Lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat the olive oil in a large saucepan or dutchoven over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook until fragrant, and the onions have softened, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Deglaze the pot with white wine. Let the alcohol evaporate for a minute or 2, then add the octopus, cherry tomatoes, diced or crushed tomatoes, chili flakes and oregano and mix well.

Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook, with the lid on, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Remove the lid, add the olives (if using) and the lemon juice and give the stew a good stir. The tomatoes should have broken down and gotten saucy. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning carefully with sea salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.

Lower the heat to low, and cook for another 30 minutes with the lid off, until the octopus is fork-tender and the stew has thickened a bit. Stir in the fresh basil and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing, and crusty bread to mop up the broth.

You could also try adding a tablespoon of capers along with (or instead of) the olives, but if you do, go easy on the salt. The octopus pieces will give off liquid while cooking, so they will shrink a bit, and provide a natural broth to the stew. They will also get surprisingly tender and meaty! The broth turned out wonderfully rich and tasty. Treat yourself to some fresh crusty bread to do it justice, because you wouldn't want to waste a drop. If you want to round up your meal a bit, I suggest serving it with a side of lemony roasted potatoes or similarly seasoned rice.

Seafood based dished usually go well with white wine, so you can definitely serve this with a dry white (I used Masi Modello Delle Venezie in the broth, and served the rest of the bottle with the meal), but the tomato-based broth also makes it really tasty with red wine. So really, just go with any wine you like here, as long as it's not too sweet.

In his book, David Rocco suggests using the leftovers of his stew as a pasta sauce: to do that, add a bit of olive oil to a large sauce pan over medium heat, pour in the leftover stew and let it reheat, stirring occasionally. Once it's hot, add freshly cooked pasta to the pot and mix well.

I was very happy with how this little recipe turned out, and with how much easier than anticipated it is to cook with fresh octopus. I'll definitely experiment again with this little critter!

1 comment:

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