Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Octopus, how to prepare.

Seychelles - Octopus
Originally uploaded by kevboyce

As an ancient denizen of the deep - its ancestors lived at least 200 million years ago -- octopus has long been mysterious, thanks to its appearance, intelligence, habits, and remarkable defense mechanisms. (Not only can it shoot a confusing jet of ink to cover its retreat, its skin can change color, almost like a flashing neon sign.) But strange as it may be, the octopus is neither unfamiliar nor uncommon: It thrives in warm and temperate waters throughout the world, feeding on crustaceans and fellow mollusks (technically, octopus is a molluscan cephalopod). Happily, for us at least, it also develops a lovely flavor and texture, as long as it is handled correctly.

The stumbling block, according to reigning "wisdom," is that octopus is so tough that extraordinary measures must be taken to tenderize it. And if you ask five different people what these measures are you are likely to get five different answers, all arcane - which goes a long way toward explaining why no one cooks octopus at home. A Greek cook may tell you to beat it against some rocks (actually a contemporary would probably tell you to throw it against the kitchen sink repeatedly). A Spanish cook will dip it into boiling water three times, then cook it in a copper pot - only copper will do. An Italian might cook it with two corks. The Japanese rub it all over with salt, or knead it with grated daikon, then slice the meat at different angles, with varying strokes.

These methods work, but so does cooking octopus slowly, with no further ado. No one wants rubbery octopus (although sushi-style octopus is nearly rubbery), but if octopus is properly handled, without fuss, it is reasonably tender. It remains chewy, but so does lobster, or sirloin steak.

Octopus is much like squid: If you keep the cooking time minimal, under five minutes or so, you get a chewy but not unpleasant texture; this is a good technique for octopus salad or sushi. But for most preparations, long, slow cooking, which yields a tender texture, is best. (If you cook it too long, it becomes dry and tasteless.)

Size: There are tiny octopi, under six ounces; these may be difficult to find and tend to be expensive. They're great cooked for a couple of minutes and then served with little more than olive oil, lemon, and salt; but they are really tidbits, mostly suitable for appetizers. The most common octopi we see are in the two to four pound range (there are octopi that weigh almost ten times as much, but these are not seen in stores) You'll also see medium-sized specimens, in the 12- to 16 ounce range. These are useful and convenient because one is a good serving.

Really, size doesn't matter.I like both big and small,All that matters is that you don't overcook them. Where it comes from, whether it's been frozen or not, the size, the cooking method - these are all pretty much irrelevant as long as you cook it carefully.

Finally, there is the issue of octopus skin, ugly when raw, but a lovely gelatinous, almost fatty substance once cooked. (The animal itself is extremely low in fat.) Some cooks and chefs rub it off. To me, this is equivalent to making osso buco and discarding the marrow. It's worth noting that this gelatin is so powerful that cooked octopus can be made into a terrine simply by weighting it (see the variation on Octopus and Potatoes, below). This gelatinous skin dries out and virtually disappears during grilling and some other preparations.

Almost every octopus dish begins with simmering, and it is not unlike cooking a tough piece of meat: You put the octopus in water to cover and cook it until it is tender.This usually takes about an hour, but may be considerably less for smaller specimens and sometimes twice as long for larger, tougher ones. Judging tenderness is easy: When the thickest part of the octopus (the "skirt," where the head meets the legs) yields to the sharp point of a small knife with little resistance, it is done.

The simmering need not be in water you can also simmer the octopus, but in olive oil - a kind of octopus confit.

Once tenderized by simmering the confit can be dressed with soy and lime juice. It can be tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, with or without other seafood and vegetables, to make a salad. Or, or course, it can be grilled, making it both crisp and tender. This ultimately appealing combination is easily achieved, as long as the fire is hot enough to crisp up the exterior before drying out the interior.

The best way to judge freshness is to smell - the aroma should be of seawater, nothing else. (An octopus that is going bad will reveal itself to your nose in an instant.)

Two to three pounds of octopus is about the right amount for four people (it shrinks startlingly). It doesn't matter much if you buy one larger specimen or several smaller ones, though it will affect cooking time


An octopus is a sac (the head) with eight legs. In the head are eyes, a mouth, a pair of beaks, and a file-like organ used to drill through the shells of its prey. Cleaning octopus is a chore, but not a daunting one; it essentially involves removing these innards from the head sack and rinsing; you then cook the octopus, whole. But cleaning is barely worth a thought: I have not seen uncleaned octopus sold in a store in more than five years. All frozen octopus is cleaned before freezing. If a fresh octopus should be uncleaned when you buy it, ask the fishmonger to do it for you.

Cooking: There are no hard and fast rules for timing. Some people say octopus should cook about 30 minutes per kilo (two pounds) but often the timing is longer. A 12- to 16-ounce octopus certainly cooks in less than an hour, and if you put four or even six of them in a pot together the cooking time will be faster than that for a four-pound octopus, which can take as long as two hours to become tender. Check with the sharp point of a thin-bladed knife; when it meets little resistance, the octopus is done. Do not cook further or it will begin to dry out and toughen again.

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