Almost without fail, when it is on the menu, C orders octopus. I like octopus just fine, but I like trying new things more. And yet, somehow, we always end up with octopus. So when C told me one Friday that he wanted octopus for dinner at home, I felt not even a tiny amount of shock at the request, only surprise that it had taken him this long to ask.
The more I thought about it, however, the more problems I came up with.
- Where do I find octopus in NYC?
- Do I cook the whole thing? Just the legs? I’ve never seen an octopus head at a restaurant – or maybe I have and didn’t recognize it?
- Do I have to clean out the brains?
- How do I cook it? Boil? Braise? Grill?
- Will I know when it’s done? What temperature do you cook octopus to?
Acquiring the Sucker
Naturally, C knew the answer to exactly zero of these questions; I found myself in charge. Given their extensive fish counter, we headed to Citarella and asked for octopus. Their octopus only came frozen, and only in approximately two pound chunks, but at this point we were totally committed. Down the Citarella guy went into the depths of basement and emerged with an almost perfectly square block of pinkish-white meat. Many questions came to mind: Where are the legs…? The head? Is this just the torso of a monster octopus? Don’t worry, the details emerged with defrosting.
Upon returning to The Nest, I set the octopus to defrost, then googled how to cook it. As it became less frozen, it was more visibly an octopus, complete with head (brains and eyeballs removed), suckers, and the desired eight legs. Most recipes recommended boiling the octopus first, then grilling it to get that charred exterior you always find at restaurants. Things you put in the boiling water with the octopus: lemons, garlic, peppercorns, white wine, a cork. Wait what? Yes, a cork from a wine bottle. Safety warning, aka common sense: do not use plastic corks or screw off tops.
Not a single article could articulate the science behind this practice, but all the Italians claim that the cork makes your octopus more tender and if the Italians say it, well, then it’s in your best interest to do it. Greeks also recommend bashing the freshly caught octopus against the rocks on the seashore though…if that is an available option, by all means, get after it. #notinNYC
Curl & Cook
I bet that if you’ve ever eaten octopus legs in a restaurant, you’ve admired the beautiful curl to the ends. In reality, octopus legs don’t come like that; they are stringy, slimy, and feel a bit like freshly conditioned shower hair. But dip the tips into the boiling water three times and they curl up nicely.
Plop the whole octopus into the water and cook until you can easily stab it with a knife.
Hack the legs off the octopus, Roman legionary style, and then rub them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and throw them on your grill or grill pan. If there is thick skin still on the legs, you can rub it off before this, but I didn’t get it all off and didn’t notice a difference. I personally couldn’t figure out what to do with the head, which is hollow inside after the brains have been removed; we grilled it the same way as the legs, but it wasn’t nearly as delicious, perhaps because the ratio of charring was all wrong. If you are using a grill pan and have a gas stove, you can get your octopus extra charred right over the open flame.
All around, shockingly easy. For added flair, name your octopus. Ours was Otto.
- 1 octopus (some sources say that frozen is actually better)
- 1 lemon, cut in half
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
- 1 wine cork (drink the bottle)
- Olive oil
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Accoutrements (we grabbed a bean salad from Citarella, added scallions, jalapenos, and lemon)
- Parsley and lemon wedges to garnish
Fill a large pot with enough water to fully submerge the octopus, but don’t put it in yet. Bring the water, lemon, garlic, peppercorns, and wine cork to a boil.
Holding the octopus by the head, dip the bottom 2 or so inches into the boiling water three times, or until the tips are nicely curled. Submerge the octopus and boil until you can easily pierce it with a knife (approximately 30 minutes). It will probably float to the surface, but I just flipped him over a few times so that all parts of him were underwater for a while.
Remove from the water and drain. When cool enough, cut off the legs. If there is rough skin remaining, it should rub off easily with your fingers or a paper towel, should you feel inclined. Rub the legs with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, then sear over high heat, using a grill, grill pan, or cast iron, until the outsides are as crisp and charred as you like them.
Serve over the accoutrements of your choice. Recommendations: bean salads, parsley, cilantro, jalapeno, garlic, anything you can imagine. I tend to like octopus with fresh flavors. Lots of lemon!