Posted by: puebloman | August 1, 2011

How to buy, cook and eat Octopus

What is an octopus?

The octopus is a member of the Cephalopod family that includes squid and cuttlefish – all delicious eating.

O. vulgaris is is the most popular eating octopus. Twenty to one hundred thousand metric tons of this octopus is landed yearly. The octopus, though an intelligent animal,  easily yields to the octopus pot. Traditionally these were made out of clay but now they are made of plastic or PVC. You don’t put bait in octopus pots like crab and lobster traps. Instead you make the octopus feel like its nestling in a safe octopus home.

The octopus is a highly developed form of mollusc that has a centralised nervous system, a big head and a real brain. It can remember and learn. Although it looks like an alien from space, it is speedy and athletic in the wild and can rapidly change colour to hide or intimidate the predator.

There are three edible species of octopus, but the common octopus, Octopus Vulgaris is the most commonly availble and the best eating. It can grow to 300 cm or nine feet long. On the fishmonger’s slab, look for the double row of suckers.

Preparing

From the cook’s point of view, the octopus consists of a sac, which is both its head and its guts, mouth parts like a bird’s beak, but with a file like construction that allows it to saw through the shells of molluscs. The “head” also has big eyes. Attached to this body are eight legs.

Octopus is always sold cleaned, but in case you get given one, you just have to open the head sac and wash out the guts. Remove the “beak”. There is no need to skin the octopus.

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.

  1. 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).
  2. A Spanish cook will dip it into boiling water three times, then cook it in a copper pot – only copper will do.
  3. An Italian might cook it with two corks
  4. The Japanese rub it all over with salt, or knead it with grated daikon, then slice the meat at different angles, with varying strokes.
  5. My advice: freeze it for 24 hours or, better, buy it in legs, frozen

Fresh or frozen? How to buy

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.) Most but not all fish markets carry frozen octopus, and any should be able to get it for you with a day or two notice.

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 (see below).

Cooking

Like all Cephalopods, you cook them quick, or very slow. You can toss an octopus leg on a hot barbecue or deep fry it. I prefer it braised in equal parts water fish stock and white wine. Gently fry slivered carrot, celery and thinly sliced onion until nearly soft then add two or three cloves of chopped garlic and cook until they start to colour then turn up the heat and pour in the wine so that the alcohol bubbles off. Then add the stock and water. Then put in your fresh or (preferably) thawed octopus.

Like all Cephalopods, 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.

Cooking methods

It has long been a standard at sushi bars of course; and you have been able to find it at Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and even some Italian restaurants for years, in salads, stews, or with potatoes or pasta. Now, however, you see dishes like octopus terrine, octopus confit, octopus risotto, octopus with pasta, and more. Then of course there’s grilled octopus, which – since it was first popularized at Periyali about ten years ago – has become downright trendy.

All of these dishes can be readily accomplished by the home cook. Cook your octopus slowly. 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.)

Although octopi live all over the world, there is a common belief that the best octopus comes from Portugal. But since water knows no political boundaries (and Portugal is hardly a body of water), it can hardly be the whole truth. According to Vincent Cutrone, who owns The Octopus Garden, a Bensonhurst fish store specializing in the cephalopods (octopus, squid, and cuttlefish), “Whether Atlantic octopus is fished by the Portuguese or anyone else, most of it comes from the waters off the west coast of Africa.” But Mediterranean octopus is also common, as is octopus from Asia, especially the Philippines. (There is very little domestic octopus, probably because the domestic market is so small; it’s an incidental catch and probably thrown overboard as often as not.) After weeks of cooking octopus from all over the world, I detected little or no difference in quality between those from Europe and those from Asia.

Almost all of this octopus is cleaned and frozen before shipping, which is not the disadvantage you might think. For one thing, octopus spoils quickly, so it’s difficult to maintain high quality during shipping, especially since it’s not expensive and therefore rarely shipped by air. More important is that the quality of octopus, like that of squid, does not suffer noticeably when it is frozen.


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