In spite of living in a coastal city with a reputation for its seafood, I don't cook a lot of it. It's expensive, and expensive instills fear in me. If I screw up, I might be out $30 or more for the main course alone. Even prawns are eye-wateringly exy for anything of respectable size. So, in wanting to write about one of my greatest cooking fears, where could I turn? It would have to be something that people aren't necessarily familiar with and, in keeping with the theme of this column: simple and inexpensive.
Photos by Sam Bithoney
I gave myself ample time to prepare this write up and really try to figure out this leviathan. So much comes to mind - flavour, texture, cook times, cost, pairings - but most importantly, appearance. If you've never tried a dish, no matter how terrifying it may seem in terms of production or taste, you truly can't judge it. Scary food is just as delicious as it's more eye-friendly counterparts. So join me, dear reader, on an exploration of one of the more polarising seafoods available: the mighty octopus.
Look, I get it. You're probably thinking "NOPE". You're probably seeing visions of suckers and tentacles and beaks and ink and jars of dirt. But trust me, friend. Octopus is as delicious as it is easy to cook. So much of it is hands off, and the only real work that needs to be done is deciding on your cooking method.
Commercially available cephalopods - squid and octopus - don't take kindly to high heat for long. Each contain significant amounts of liquid and, once that liquid is gone, little else remains but rubbery sadness. There are a multitude of solutions presented for a variety of cooking methods, but I'm going to stick with the method I was taught, which may be the least complex of them all: braising and grilling. We'll be braising the octopus in its own liquid and finishing it on the grill but first, you need an octopus.
Braised and Grilled Octopus
- 1g octopus, whole, cleaned
- 1 cup of red wine
- ¼ cup of fresh oregano (I would skip dried, but if you must, use 1 tablespoon of dried)
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- Ground black pepper
- Fine Kosher Salt
- 1 tablespoon of lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice (half of a large lemon)
- Additional lemon wedges for serving
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Once thawed, separate the mantle and tentacles from the body by cutting above and below the eyes.
You may need to invert the mantle to clean out any remaining bits. Most frozen specimens have been cleaned, but it doesn't hurt to check.
Give the mantle a feel though - just because you don't see it, doesn't mean something isn't there. More often than not, I find these little pin bone-like things in there.
OK, they aren't bones. But they're not edible, and they're sharp. Get 'em outta there.
Place your octopus in a pot over high heat and cover. After five minutes, check to ensure that liquid is being released - the octopus should be plump, and almost totally covered in its own juices by now. If not, add water to almost cover. Replace the lid and simmer for 45 minutes, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough liquid (add more water if not). Once the octopus is fork tender, remove the pan from the heat.
At this point, you can elect to remove the skin from the tentacles, and/or separate them into individual pieces. It should slide right off with a paper towel. Take care to leave the suckers on, though - they will crisp up nicely on the grill.
"It looks like a hot dog had a baby and Cthulhu was the father"
Add the wine to the cooking liquid and allow the octopus to steep until cooled to room temperature, or chill overnight, covered, in a container in the refrigerator. After the octopus has rested, drain it and move it into yet another large bowl. Add the salt, pepper, garlic, oregano and oil and - why not - a squirt of juice from a few of those lemon wedges. Toss that around, and let it stand for an hour while you preheat your grill to its hottest possible temperature.
Not kidding - this might be the best picture I've ever taken.
After liberally oiling your grates, sear the octopus for two or three minutes per side, remove it, place it on a serving dish and get it on the table. No matter how tender you've cooked it, the flesh will begin to collapse and rubberize over time, so eat up.
Octopus, like squid, is versatile and can be used in a multitude of dishes. Because of it's longer prep time for grilling, it remains a popular item for braising, and can be used in almost every application that you would use squid. Now that I know I can get them very close by, I am tempted to try a tandoori version, or maybe even a "General Tso" style octopus. Take advantage of this delicious and inexpensive beast this summer - it's sure to be an experience you won't forget.