So, it’s my birthday this week. I’ve officially passed the threshold of being in one’s “early” thirties—but so what, right? There is infinite time to live and learn, make and do things, all of them incredibly new and infinitely, excitingly and fresh and different. I cooked octopus for the first time last month. It wasn’t exactly the first, if you count helping other cooks over their shoulder and doing-by-seeing, but it was a first for my own kitchen. Chefs of any stripe—whether a humble home cook or the most experienced, professional and worldly chef out there—all know that there are infinite creatures and culinary creations to cook up for many more years than they have on earth. And that’s what I think keeps a lot of us going.
I’ve written about the post-election blues here recently. But I didn’t really expect the toll it would take on creative output for me, at least. Some people are energized, even more motivated, by adversity and conflict. Maybe this is evidence of my being more motivated by positive changes that I can’t shut up about, or maybe the last two weeks of news I’ve been seeing in this 2016 election’s aftermath has just left me slack-jawed, stupefied and speechless like no other time.
But if there’s one thing that I’ve been more motivated to do than ever lately, it’s simply cooking. I can’t recommend its therapeutic virtues enough. So with all positive inclinations, I stop to share a recent dish I made for the birthday of someone very near and dear to my heart, involving octopus.
This cephalopod makes a good case for taking things slowly and with due time to ripen. If you’ve ever experienced it in a sushi setting, it was most certainly not raw, but slow-cooked until tender and purplish tentacles. That’s the way octopus wants to be when you eat it—rather than chewy and gummy from not cooking enough or weird as it must be to eat totally raw. (Although the latter is something that one can look forward to maybe one day experiencing in all their years on earth.)
It’s actually braised for quite long in flavorful liquids, then flash-seared on a hot cast-iron pan (a grill would work great here, too). The tentacles curl up once it hits hot water, then you get to see them blister and crisp up like an encore on the pan.
That’s something you don’t get to experience when you order octopus in a restaurant. And lately, I’ve been seeing more and more of octopus on menus. A couple fat, crisped tentacles, scattered with tasty things like olives, for instance. I freshened it up a bit by placing it on a bed of finely shredded fennel and orange segments, like a salad, and spicing it up with some Spanish paprika.
This dish was actually part of a six-course birthday meal that I’d cooked, which was roughly based around Catalan cuisine (think romesco sauce-laden steak, slow-roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil). The idea behind that influence was roughly based on Salvador Dali, who threw splendrous dinner parties of that is the stuff of legend, and the subject of his 1973 cookbook, Les Diners de Gala. It was once a rare-book treasure but was recently republished by Taschen last month. Well, we tried to emulate the sensation of those dinners and it was quite fun. Because birthdays are special.
But it’s easy enough to braise and sear octopus to arrange in a salad anytime. I found frozen, small octopus (called “pulpetto” rather than “pulpo,” the larger version) at an Italian grocery in Chelsea Market. While stocking up on them in the freezer section, a fellow shopper spied my cart and asked me kindly how they should be cooked. It was a great pleasure to tell him exactly what I’m writing now (slow-cook in liquid, then momentarily sear) and watch him nod, and decide to follow suit. Nothing is too crazy to cook if you just try.
So let’s try. I’m only 35 years in, and there are hoards of foods left out there to try.
Octopus with Fennel and Orange
(makes about 4 appetizer-size servings)
2 lbs octopus, preferably only tentacles or smaller whole octopus
1 large fennel bulb, stalks separated and some fronds reserved for garnish
1 onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
handful fresh parsley leaves (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Place the fennel stalks, onion and garlic in a pot with enough water to submerge by a couple inches. Bring to a boil. Add the octopus and bring back to a boil. Reduce to a low simmer and cover. Cook, covered (can be transferred to the oven covered as long as it remains at a low simmer), for 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the octopus. Once octopus is very tender, remove from pot with tongs and set aside to cool. Strain and save the octopus broth for another use (like boiling potatoes in!).
While the octopus is cooling, trim the fennel bulb of any rough or discolored patches on the outside, and shave into fine shreds (using a knife or the help of a mandoline). Trim the top and bottom of the orange and place upright on a flat side; cut downward to remove the peel along one side, and turn and repeat until the orange is skinless and white pith-less. Then cut out the orange segments from their pith and place in a bowl.
Toss the cooled octopus with a tablespoon of the olive oil and the paprika and a pinch of salt and pepper. Heat a pan or grill on very high heat and add another tablespoon of olive oil to it (if using a pan, and cast-iron is recommended). Once oil is sputtering and very hot, add the octopus (you may need to work in batches to have enough space on the pan) and let sit for about half a minute before turning to quickly sear or char. Remove from heat after one turn and about a minute total, and set aside.
Toss the shaved fennel with a tablespoon of the olive oil, the vinegar, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the orange segments. Arrange the salad on plates and top with the octopus, and some reserved fennel fronds and the optional parsley. Serve immediately.
(for 4 servings)
2 lbs small octopus (pulpetto) at $10/lb: $20
1 fennel bulb: $3.00
1 orange: $0.50
3 tablespoons olive oil: $0.50
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar: $0.25
1/2 teaspoon paprika, salt, pepper: $0.20
clutch fresh parsley: $0.25
1 onion: $0.25
4 garlic cloves: $0.20
Five brownie points: It’s not supposed to be a health food more so than an exciting appetizer, but it’s actually both. With octopus, like most seafoods, you’ll get omega-3 fatty acids to help counter your “bad” cholesterol, and protein. And you’ll get lots of fiber and antioxidants from the fennel, and more Vitamin C from the orange. A little olive oil and vinegar to dress it up doesn’t hurt either.
Six maple leaves: Octopus gets pretty good ratings from Seafood Watch, although I’m not sure the origin of mine. Those from Spain and Portugal at least have “Good Alternative” ratings, and I’d like to think given the culinary flair of the meal it was from one of those places. Of course, I could be wrong. Fennel was found in-season at the farmers market, although the orange was trucked in from Florida. Spanish sherry vinegar and olive oil also imported treats, making this a mostly exotic meal yet with relatively low-impact ingredients.