Octopus scares most cooks. Not because of its tentacles, or its slipperiness, or its often unwieldy size. It scares most cooks because preparing it successfully (until it’s tender rather than rubbery) seems unlikely.
Why this should be the case is a mystery. Think of octopus as you would a tough cut of meat meant for braising: beef chuck, oxtail, pork shoulder, lamb shanks… You get the idea. All it needs is slow, gentle cooking to render it tender and soft, rather than chewy and tough. Forget all you have read about triple-dunking in boiling liquid, beating against the side of a rock (or the inside of your sink), whacking it with a meat mallet, or adding a cork to the boiling liquid. Just cook the octopus for hours, until a fork easily punctures it, and you’re done.
The recipe below is for poached octopus, which certainly doesn’t sound very sexy, but it is succulent, the ideal starter for a holiday seafood dinner. The first step is making what the French call court bouillon, which means short stock: a flavorful, often wine-spiked cooking liquid in which to poach fish and seafood (or anything else you wish to cook). Making a court bouillon takes minutes of work, and you can add whatever aromatics you want to the pot: below are my favorites, but improvise as you like.
Once the court bouillon is strained, lower the octopus into it and cook it at a happy simmer for 2 or 3 hours, then serve it straight away, as below, or cool it in a bit of its cooking liquid and grill it later (a simple smoked paprika, parsley, and garlic dressing is my favorite post-grilling). You can also press the cooked octopus into a terrine mold (or loaf pan) lined with plastic wrap overnight, refrigerate it under the weight of a few cans, and when you take it out, you can slice it into a most impressive-looking octopus soppressata: the gelatin in the octopus sets the layers so it looks like a gorgeous octopus mosaic.
Keep in mind that octopus shrinks tremendously when it is cooked, so even if it seems like a 3-pound octopus is overkill, it will be about one-third of its original weight after cooking.
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 to 6 as an appetizer
For the court bouillon:
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- tops and fronds from 1 bunch fennel
- 2 garlic cloves
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup dry white wine
- cool water to cover
For the octopus and to serve:
- 1 large octopus (ideally about 3 pounds)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- juice of 1 large lemon
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1 garlic clove, grated on a microplane
- 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
Make the court bouillon: Combine all the ingredients except the water in a deep pot (preferably one with a built-in strainer). Add enough water to come as high as you think is safe, considering that you will later be adding the octopus to the pot.
Bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Strain to discard the solids and return to a boil.
Lower the octopus into the simmering liquid. Cover and cook until the octopus is very tender over medium-low heat, about 2 to 3 hours. Don’t rush the process; octopus takes time to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the octopus submerged throughout the cooking.
Remove the octopus from the liquid and place on a large platter. Cool until you can handle it easily with your hands. Slip off the slimy purple skin (but leave the suction cups attached to the tentacles). Discard the head (I find it tough, although you might want to try it in case you disagree). Cut the tentacles into bite-size chunks.
In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, chili flakes, garlic, and parsley. Pour over the octopus and toss well; taste the seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature. We enjoy octopus with steamed baby potatoes, green beans, and kale sprouts (as pictured below) dressed simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper, but you can serve it atop baby greens, peppery arugula, or a shaved fennel salad.