A call to arms
The octopus has had a difficult lot in kitchens. Its appearance has inhibited people from eating it in so many countries. Historically it’s eaten mostly in the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia, including Japan. The Oxford Companion puts it this way: “[The Japanese] consider the octopus a cheerful, good-natured and somewhat comical creature. It is often personified ... and figures in fairytales, and as toys, mascots etc.” I suppose in some ways the rest of the world finds it repugnant and has cast the octopus mostly in horror films.
Now, what scares people most about octopus is not its appearance but how to keep the thing tender. When you purchase octopus, especially large octopus, it has usually been tenderised. In some places, it is beaten against rocks. Here they are forced into cement mixers and tumbled, which is a gruesome and inky sight when you pop your head into the fish markets. But this process shortens the cooking time.
The thing that makes octopus tough is leaving it undercooked. If you’ve eaten chewy octopus at a dinner party, it’s because it hasn’t been cooked long enough. It is probably not the best thing to serve to guests, at least until you’ve mastered it. Equally, you can cook octopus for too long and the texture can become pulpy. Regardless of how you’re cooking the octopus, it is worth cutting off a small portion and tasting it before serving. The size and the amount of tenderisation will affect cooking time. But it is as simple as this: if it’s tough, cook it some more.
Sometimes I will braise an octopus the day before and later brush it with oil and put it on the barbecue before serving it with a little lemon. I’ve eaten octopus as a snack in Japan, boiled and sliced thinly and served with a citrus-based soy.
In the restaurant, we will put a cleaned octopus into a Cryovac bag with some olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and a bay leaf, and cook it in a water bath. This low temperature cooking lets the octopus retain a lot of its moisture and infuses it with some of those flavours.
I prefer to cook with larger octopus, although people are sometimes scared off by this. The flavour is fantastic but the texture, more so, is deeply satisfying. There’s something about having to use your teeth.
We had a snack at the restaurant where we’d serve eight slices of a big octopus, topped with aioli, scud chilli, smoked tomato and basil. It took about a year before a lady noticed and said, “Eight slices. How wonderful. One from each leg.”
The frozen baby octopus found in some marinara mixes – mean little flavourless things – should be avoided at all costs. They have no taste and terrible texture and thankfully are left mostly in supermarket freezers.
Cooked and dressed octopus
– 1kg tumbled octopus tentacles, about 3 tentacles from a large
– 100ml olive oil
– 3 tbsp best-quality chardonnay vinegar
– 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Rinse the octopus and pat dry. Trim away any excess skin that hangs between the top ends of the tentacles, where they are connected.
Take a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Heat the oil until very hot and carefully add the octopus. Fry the octopus over a high heat, using a pair of tongs to turn the tentacles from time to time. When the octopus has changed colour, put the lid on the pan, turn the heat to low and cook gently for 20-30 minutes.
Lift the lid and turn the tentacles over a couple of times as they cook. After 20 minutes remove a tentacle and cut a slice from it. If it is chewy, return it to the pan and cook for another five minutes. Continue doing this until the octopus is tender.
Once cooked, leave the octopus to cool a little in its liquid.
Drain the tentacles, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking liquid. Slice the octopus into bite-sized pieces.
In a bowl, toss the octopus with the extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and reserved cooking liquid.
Serve the octopus pieces on a plate with some of the dressing spooned over.
2014 The Gentle Folk gris and blanc, Adelaide Hills ($26)
– Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "A call to arms". Subscribe here.