Mediterranean Braised Octopus with Potato, Fennel and Olives
At one point last weekend, Mike and I had an excellent visit with some good friends on the other side of Toronto. When Mike and I first began dating, they started out as “Mike’s Friends”, considering that the two fellas were friends in high school. However, perhaps because I absolutely adore his wife (whom I share a vocation with, which give us limitless possibilities for complaints and venting), or possibly because I think that Auntie Tina is actually more popular than Uncle Mike (for the first time ever) with their beautiful little blue eyed baby girl, I now think of them as “Our Friends”.
The lady of the house comes from a large and sprawling Portuguese family, most of whom live within a close proximity in the West End. I think that’s just marvelous. On my father’s side, my family is equally robust, but due to geographical dispersion and the separations of time, we don’t get together as often and I often wish that I had the close and loving relationship with my cousins that she is lucky enough to enjoy. Work and lifestyle aside, however, I like that she’s also totally my inside track to traditional Portuguese cuisine. I never tire of beleaguering her with questions about how a dish should be prepared, or what really goes into her Mom’s infamous Piri Piri sauce and fresh cheese.
As we sipped wine and munched on appetizers, I started flipping through her Portuguese cookbooks (note: if you ever invite me to your house, never let me know where you keep your cookbooks or I’ll be lost to you for the next 2 hours) and I mentioned that I had an octopus defrosting for use in an octopus salad that was similar to one of the recipes. She smiled and said, “Oh yeah, my Mom made an amazing octopus stew just last week.” That was a mistake.
Tina: “So, how does your Mom make octopus stew?”
Her: “Well, there’s some octopus–“
Tina: “Yeah, yeah. So what does she put in it other than octopus?”
Her: “Uh, tomatoes?”
Tina: “okay, so does she slowly simmer or braise the octopus, and if so, for how long?”
Her: “Why are you asking me these things?”
Tina: “Is that a traditional Portuguese dish? Will I find it in one of these books? DO YOU HAVE ANY LEFT?? IS IT IN YOUR FRIDGE??!”
My nosiness easily crosses the line of normal and socially acceptable boundaries. Alas, all that I found out was the the octopus stew involved braised octopus with tomato and potato. Not a lot to go on, but enough that I picked up the torch and changed my plans (octopus salad? Pish, tosh! What a waste when we could have STEW!) and decided to give my octopus new life with a slow braise, rich with Mediterranean flavors.
I should also mention that Mike, my delightful and adored husband, loathes and despises all cephalopods, or “devil fish”. When I told him that I was making octopus for dinner, he sent me this:
**thank you Dinosaur Comics, for giving fuel to his bitter fire and octopus hate-on. That’s just what I need**
From giant squid the length of a bus, to mini octopi on a dim sum menu, Mike’s abhorrence for all thing tentacled knows no bounds. As far as I’m concerned, that means, “Would you like to try the calamari?” translates to, “MORE FOR TINA!” and I’m happy. Even so, as the octopus slow cooked for hours, he kept popping upstairs to grudgingly say, “Your horrifying sea monster smells….delicious….” I considered that to be an opportunity. More importantly, despite his utter disdain, Mike is nothing if not a trouper and he did eventually agree to try some of the stew. His verdict was, “Huh. Not so bad. It tastes good….other than the octopus. But even that just tastes like, uh, chicken??” I’ll take that as a modified win.
Okay, who am I kidding. For Mike to admit that he liked my stew was like winning the blessed 2011 Seafood Olympics.
One final note before the recipe; octopus can be troublesome to cook if you’re unfamiliar with the beast. If you don’t just sear the octopus and then heat it until cooked through, it becomes rubbery and almost inedible. Overcooked octopus is a thing of nightmares. However, octopus that has been cooked slowly on low heat has a completely different texture, both luscious and toothsome. Various cultures have different ideas on how to make octopus tender, from throwing it against rocks (Spain and Greece) to simmering it with a cork (Greece) or copper penny (Spain), and even rubbing it with freshly grated daikon (Japan). What is important to remember is that whatever you do, low and slow counts the most. Simmering the octopus Gaelician style will yield tender, delectable morsels, but you lose a lot of that delicious, soft, sweet and briny octopus broth to the water. If you slow roast or braise the octopus, however, all of the juices that are released will stay in the pan and flavor the meat, which is why I prefer a slow-braise method the most.
Mediterranean Braised Octopus with Potato, Fennel and Olives
- 1.5 lb (750 g) fresh or frozen octopus *
- 1.5 lb (750 g) white or waxy potatoes
- 1 large yellow onion
- 1 large bulb fennel
- 5 garlic cloves
- 3-4 (3/4 lb or 300 g) hothouse tomatoes **
- 1/2 cup (about 18) kalamata olives
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp red chili flakes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- squeeze fresh lemon juice (~ 1/4 lemon)
- handful fresh dill (~ 1/3 cup coarsely chopped)
- salt and pepper to taste
* Fresh octopus can be very difficult to find. The good news is that unlike many varieties of fish, freezing does not deteriorate the texture of octopus. On the contrary, some schools of thought believe that it helps to tenderize the meat. Verdict is still out, but I’ll go with that for now. For this dish, I bought frozen octopus which was actually 1/2 of a cleaned octopus but with tentacles only and minus the torso. That’s kind of a pity because I like the meat from the body, but at least it was pre-cleaned and perhaps limiting my ink sac and beak removal duties was a good thing.
** Winter tomatoes are always dicey at best, but locally grown hothouse tomatoes are an acceptable make-do option. When I went shopping, however, even they looked pretty bleak, so I opted for 8-10 sweeter Campari tomatoes. Again, sometimes you just have to select the best from your limited options.
Preheat your oven to 250ºF and set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
If your octopus has not already been cleaned, turn it inside out (or if that’s not plausible, just reach inside) and pull away the entrails including the stomach sac and the cartilage sticks. Flip the octopus right-side out again and locate the beak in the middle of the tentacles. Cut that away using a sharp paring knife or kitchen shears. Discard everything that you removed and rinse the octopus well under cold running water.
….Or just buy a pre-cleaned frozen partial octopus like I did, because that works just as well.
Heavily salt the pot of water and bring it to a rolling boil (it should be slightly saltier than what you would use to boil pasta). Ease the octopus into the water, tentacles first, and let it boil for 30 seconds. Remove it immediately and set it aside until cool enough to handle.
That quick blanch is enough to make the octopus curl right up into itself. Even with what is a very short cooking time, the meat is cooked through in most parts and very tender and succulent. If we had left it in for a few minutes longer, the octopus would have become heartbreakingly tough and almost inedible. However, with a long and slow heat it will actually tenderize again in the most magnificent way.
Peel the garlic, onion and potatoes. Chop the potatoes into large but still bite sized chunks. Cut the top stumps off from the fennel bulb and core it. Slice the onion and fennel in half and then across into medium sized (1/4″ – 1/3″) half moon slices. Halve the tomatoes and leave the garlic cloves whole.
Spread the potatoes, onion and fennel and garlic into a large ungreased casserole dish or roasting pan.
Cut the octopus tentacles into large chunks, about 2-3″ each for the areas where they’re fat, and leaving a long curled tentacle where it narrows down. Cut the body into chunks that are roughly equivalent in size.
Nestle the octopus in among the vegetables and distribute the tomatoes and olives evenly over top. Whisk the white wine, olive oil, oregano and red chili flakes together and pour the mixture over top, tucking the bay leaf in wherever it fits.
Place the uncovered dish into your preheated oven and let the octopus and vegetables braise on low heat for 4 – 4.5 hours, stirring every hour or so.
Please note that by hour 3 your octopus will have shrunk to just under half the original size and be tough as nails. You may start to panic that you’ve done things utterly wrong, but take heart. This is the storm before the calm, and after the meat seizes, with continued braising it will relax and become delightfully tender again.
When the octopus is cooked through until it is easily pierced with a fairly dull fork, roughly chop the fresh dill.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the casserole and stir in the dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
This casserole should be served hot, and preferably with plenty of fresh crusty bread to soak up all that lascivious brothy, wine fortified sauce.
Now does that look like a monster to you? Hardly at all. I mean, other than the tentacles and suction cups, but just train yourself to look at that and think, “Dinner!!” instead of, “Oh god, SAVE THE CHILDREN!” and you’ll be alright.
Slow braised octopus is a thing of beauty, with a texture that is meaty and succulent but tender on the tooth and with a very mild flavor. When Mike said that it tasted like chicken, I can’t say that I agree, but in his defense the texture of the meat is more similar to a slow braised chicken thigh than it is to the rubbery breaded calamari from your local pub.
If your New Years resolution was to give something new a try, why not start with sea monsters? Terror is delicious.