My first encounter with an Octopus – Polpo in Italian – happened as a kid. Family friends had fished a big one in the Mediterranean, near a rocky area. When they brought it home, I was impressed and quite frightened by this slimy, strange creature. I asked the lady of the house in charge of the lunch how she was going to deal with this mysterious animal: “facilissimo! E che ci vuole?” Super easy, it won’t take much! I couldn’t believe my ears. I sat fascinated, watching her clean the octopus, by removing the beak (a kind of black nail situated in the center) and the ink pocket. Then she immersed the pulp 3 times in boiling water, keeping it 20 seconds each time, to make sure the tentacles would roll up and then leaving it to boil for approximately one hour with some wine corks, to make it tender – so goes the saying. I have found no scientific proof of this rule though, but if it doesn’t help, it can’t hurt either. The result was a tender, white, naturally slightly salty meat with this incredible purple skin. I was a bit scared of eating the suckers, but everyone around the table was not cutting them off, so I did the same and felt like an adult.
Since then, I always proved a feeling of awe and respect for this aquatic animal, maybe for its numerous tentacles reaching out to the world. I never saw it in the sea, probably because they tend to hide in the crevices of the rocks.
This mollusk is a nutritional wonder especially for the very low calories, high protein content; it is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, and it has anti-inflammatory properties, contains high levels of other antioxidants (selenium, folate, vitamin B12) that may help reduce the risk of cancer. Octopus (the name derives from the ancient Greek language, means “8 legged”) thrives in oceans around the world; its population has been growing in recent decades, probably due to overfishing of other species – so we can eat it wild without feeling bad. It constitutes an important staple of many coastal communities.
It is very hard to find fresh octopus, but the frozen ones are as good as the fresh ones, if not even better: the freezing process tenderizes the meat, so if you defrost it slowly in your refrigerator overnight you won’t need to use a meat tenderizer. Also, frozen octopus has already been cleaned.
Both fresh and frozen octopuses shrink a lot during the cooking process, so the weight after cooking will be approximately half of the weight before cooking. The octopus that is common in the Mediterranean Sea is usually smaller than the ones living in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Usually, the frozen octopuses I buy are around 3 pounds, but I’m sure that there are bigger ones in commerce as well. I personally prefer smaller ones, as I have the impression that they are more tender and easier to handle.
Today we are preparing a boiled octopus served carpaccio style. But once you have learned the basic boiling method you can experiment with several other recipes that require a boiled octopus to start with.
For 2-3 servings as an appetizer
3 pounds Octopus
½ glass white wine
Salt and pepper, olive oil
Arugula (or other salad) for garnish
1 small plastic bottle with both ends cut or any other small cylindric shape that can be used with food
1. Put a large pot of water to boil. Add white wine.
2. Rinse the Octopus, make sure the beak and the ink pocket have been removed, and the head cavity is cleaned.
3. When the water is boiling, hold the octopus with your tongs by the head and immerge completely in the boiling water for 20 seconds. Repeat 2 more times, until the tentacles are rolled up. The color of the skin will change quickly from grayish to red.
4. Now put it back in the water, cover and let it simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the size. Taste for tenderness cutting a small piece of a tentacle.
5. When tender, turn off the flame and leave it in the water to cool down.
6. Remove from the water. Peel a little bit if desired – some parts of the skin come out easily just by brushing. Remove the largest suckers if desired.
7. Cut off the 8 tentacles – this will leave the head, that you can use for other preparations. Season the tentacles with salt and pepper.
8. Get a small cylinder or a small plastic water bottle. Cut the neck so to obtain a cylinder. Punch holes on the bottom – use an incandescent knife if necessary.
9. Arrange the tentacles in the cylinder, thin side first. Push them as much as possible so that there is no air left. Some cooking water will come out through the holes that you have made on the bottom.
10. Pack with plastic film, making sure the meat stays compressed. Refrigerate overnight of freeze until ready to use.
11. To cut: remove the upper half of the plastic bottle (or take the prepared octopus out of the cylinder); with a very sharp knife cut thin slices. If you have an electric food slicer it will be easier. Remove the lower half of the bottle to keep slicing.
12. Serve on a bed of arugula or mixed greens, season with olive oil and lemon juice.
A Few Notes:
- You can also use a glass candle hurricane open on both sides, they exist in many sizes.
- If you freeze the octopus roll it will be easier to cut thin slices; let it defrost first in the fridge for an hour or so before attempting slicing.
- I prefer to keep the recipe as simple as possible to better taste the meat. But it is also nice with an emulsion of lemon juice, squeezed garlic, salt and EV olive oil. Or small capers!
Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.