On those occasions when I vary from a vegetarian lifestyle, the most frequent cause is grilled octopus, a favorite food of mine for many years. I learned about 6 years ago that one reason may be — besides being delicious — that octopus is one of the foods with highest vitamin B-12 content, one of the few nutrients missing in a vegan diet.
When we first got our pizza oven, I did manage to research and make good grilled baby octopus, thanks to help from Chef Mike Anthony in NYC. But I have always been intimidated by the idea of cooking a full-sized octopus. Every time I searched online, a found a bewildering array of techniques and recipes, often with totally contradictory instructions and advice. Two other obstacles also loomed large: (1) Barbara’s aversion to most shellfish, especially scary-looking ones, and (2) no one else in the house would eat it, and I didn’t want to throw a lot of it away.
This month I overcame my fears and was very pleased with the results. Since Barbara was away for four days, I could cook without offending her and her kitchen. A year earlier I had purchased a 2+ pound frozen Spanish octopus at Restaurant Depot; it was time to use it soon; and it was small enough that I could consume or freeze what I didn’t use in a couple of days.
My friend and fishmonger, Chris had shared how he had handled creatures about that size, so I could draw upon that guidance. In addition I read a number of online blogs and articles and then, finally plunged ahead. I defrosted the package overnight on the kitchen counter, and in the morning took it out of the packaging, cut off the head with its beak, and then let the legs soak with a few changes of cold water for an hour. From there, it was a three-step process:
- simmer the octopus in water at about 200º F. until tender
- remove it from the water, separate each of the legs, and place them (still hot) in a large bowl with olive oil and flavorings, to cool and absorb the tastes
- when ready to eat, remove as many legs as you wish for your dish, add salt and olive oil, and grill them until they have crispy edges all over
At that point you can use them in whatever dish you want to make. I ended up with three different dishes, and 2-3 servings of each:
- salad with potato, white beans, black olives, and capers
- warm salad with orzo and vegetables
- chopped salad with greens, radicchio and hot peppers
The key things I learned had to do with “simmer until tender”. Most important was not to get the water too hot or too cool. Ideal seems to be between 190º and 200º F. Food scientist Harold McGee helped me on this. His article led me to look up some material about cooking octopus sous vide, and now I know I am looking for a final temperature in the meat to be between 175 and 180º F. I also understand that there is NO WAY to know how long it will take to achieve that temperature. You will see time estimates in recipes from 30 minutes to 3 hours. The truth is, we do not know. You must measure as accurately as possible, and then cut a piece and taste near the end.
I had two digital tools that were useful. One was the the culinary laser thermometer which I normally use to gauge the pizza oven temperature. This is quick and versatile, but may not be accurate enough to ensure my water temperature is where I want it. The other is a simple digital thermometer, which I always use in breadmaking to be certain the water temperature is correct for making the levain. The latter seems to be the best for gauging water temperature.
In theory one could bring a pot of water to a low boil and then place it in a pre-heated 200º F. oven. However, oven temperature controls are not that precise, and the actual temperature could be off — higher or lower — by as much as 25º F, so I would not want to take a chance of getting it too hot, which would turn the meat into rubber.
The grilling part is relatively easy, and there are a number of way that can work. My preference is to put the legs directly on the grate of a very hot gas grill, turning once or twice. It would also work well a la plancha (Spanish style), in a preheated cast iron skillet, or under a hot broiler.
The final tip from my explorations has to do with flavor and texture. Online instructions were diametrically opposed — some said simmer in well-salted water, others said absolutely none. I used none in the water, but I also heeded advice that said to salt aggressively after cooking, both in the marinade and afterward on the grill. Low-salt octopus will not be appealing from my point of view (and it was the consensus).
In restaurants I often have a glass of red wine with grilled octopus, figuring that the bold grill flavors will complement a robust wine. However, I may be changing my perspectives on this issue, more toward white wines. In any case on warm summer days and with the three salads I made, the perfect choice was my favorite Assyrtiko from Santorini, the 2016 Estate Argyros. A Portuguese Vinho Verde also works well.