Friday, December 31, 2010

ingredient: OCTOPUS

The octopus is the James Bond of the sea. They are masters of camouflage and quick getaways. They’re pros at getting out of tight spaces (thanks to their lack of an exoskeleton) and they’re armed with their own ink guns. Forget sharks; with eight legs, three hearts, hundreds of suction cups, and a hard, pointed beak, these guys are truly the bad boys of the sea.

I’ve never personally battled an octopus (my Greek friends have butlers for that) but I’m surprised that octopi are ever caught by predators. Octopi can change the appearance of their skin to match not only the color but the texture of their surroundings. Let’s just say that if I ever get a pet octopus I am covering the tank in a velvet toile.

And of course when being attacked it comes in handy that octopi can lose and regenerate their arms at will. It seems to me that this might be the future of sustainable octopi harvesting (but more on that later.) Above all, octopi are extremely smart. Biologists believe that these cephalopods are as smart as house cats, but honestly I’d like to see your cat methodically disassemble a robot submarine or a tank thermometer or figure out how to open clams and use them as a weapon. In fact, because of their intelligence many countries (such as the UK) don’t allow surgery on octopi without anesthesia.

The only way that octopi seem to be genetically disadvantaged is the fact that they are programmed to die soon after reproducing. Well that and the fact that they’re so darn tasty. Octopi have made quite the enemy in humans, who love their meaty texture and rich flavor. Octopus is a staple in most Mediterranean cuisines, where it’s often served grilled or marinated. In Japan, octopus is a favorite in sushi restaurants, where it’s served raw, and bars, where it is fried in balls.

The indigenous people of Hawaii believe that octopi are the survivors of previous cosmos. I'd put my money on them making it to the next.

Baby Octopus with Potatoes and Olives
adapted from The Italian Grill

When I see this dish on a menu, I order it. I love the way that the crisp, smoky taste of grilled octopus gives way to a soft, buttery interior. I like the freshness of the lemon zest and how the olives add a briny flavor that is reminiscent of the sea. I'm not a huge potato person, but here they provide a surprisingly flavorful base to the salad. The trick is that the potatoes are tossed warm with the olive oil and the lemon and the spices so they pick up those flavors and add a citrusy heat to every bite.

I'm also prone to romanticizing my food. A single flavor or dish can transport me to another world--which is why I'm addicted to reading cookbooks, especially in the dead of winter. When I eat this dish, I am suddenly here

and no one can tell me otherwise.

NOTE: This recipe is usually made with adult octopus, something which my fish monger doesn't stock. So I was extremely excited when I saw the baby octopi for sale at Whole Foods. I figured I could easily substitute baby octopus for regular (in fact the mature octopus would have required an hour of boiling before grilling) and they seemed like a steal at six dollars a pound.

I happened to return to the same Whole Foods a few days later and I saw that they had labeled their seafood with a color-coded system to alert customers to the sustainability of each product. My heart sank when I saw that my cute, tasty little baby octopi had a dreaded red label, meaning that they are not sustainably harvested. Whole Foods is actually going to stop selling any red-label species, and I applaud them for it. Personally, I will follow suit, and this is the last baby octopi I will be cooking, at least until I'm given the OK by the Seafood Watch Program.

The problem is that baby and adult octopi are often harvested by trolling, a method by which fishermen drag nets along the ocean floor, damaging the ecosystem. However scientists agree that buying adult octopus is a better choice, especially if you can find ones harvested in Hawaii. I encourage you to eat sustainably, especially when it comes to preserving our oceans. If you're not sure if what you're eating is sustainably harvested, check out the Seafood Watch Program website

I am going to give the recipe that I followed as well as instructions for using mature octopus. Again, if you can, please use sustainably harvested adult octopus.

serves 6

2 pounds baby octopus (or one three pound octopus with sac, beak, and eyes removed by your wonderful fishmonger)
6 cloves garlic
1 tbsp hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 pound yellow potatoes (like yukon gold)
extra virgin olive oil
4 scallions, sliced
1 red onion (thinly sliced)
two lemons, zested and juiced
1 cup Gaeta olives (you can substitute Kalamata olives)
salt, pepper

Make the potato salad:

Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes, or until fork-tender. Drain and then cut into cubes.

In a large bowl, mix 1/2 cup of olive oil, the scallions, the red onion, the lemon zest and lemon juice, and the olives.

Add the potatoes and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

To grill the octopus:

Preheat a grill.

If you are using a mature octopus, then put the octopus with 6 cloves of garlic and some red pepper flakes in a large pot of water. Add two wine corks (this is Mario Batali's trick, taken from generations of Italian grandmothers, and it works) to help tenderize the octopus. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. The octopus is done when you can easily pierce it with a knife. Drain and cut into 1.5 inch pieces.

Coat the octopi --mature or baby- with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper (and red pepper flakes if you like things spicy.)

We grilled our batch in a grill basket, which made it super easy. If you have a grill pan (to do the octopi "a la plancha") that would be awesome too. You can also do them straight on the grill but be careful that they don't drop down to the coals

Grill for about 3-4 minutes per side. The octopus should get nicely charred, but you don't want them to get tough, so when grilling these little guys, less is more (bier.)

Gently toss the octopi with the potato salad. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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