Octopus is a much-loved staple in Asia and the Mediterranean, but little eaten in America. Fortunately, it is easily available in frozen form, thanks to its popularity in various ethnic cuisines. For those who've tried it in a restaurant and come to appreciate its sweet flavor, learning to cook octopus is surprisingly straightforward, even for a busy home cook.
Fresh octopus is difficult to find in most parts of America, although given a few days' notice, your local fishmonger may be able to locate some. Frozen octopus is widely available and is often in stock in your fishmonger's freezer. Unlike many other forms of seafood, using frozen octopus doesn't mean a compromise in quality. Not only does freezing not harm its delicate flavor, but the process of freezing and thawing helps tenderize the chewy flesh. Whether you find a fresh octopus or start with one that's thawed, your recipe will work the same way.
Octopus is chewy because its muscle fibers are long and dense, with lots of connective tissue. If it is grilled quickly, for just a minute or two, it is no chewier than a steak and perfectly tasty. Unfortunately, if you grill it just a little too long, it becomes inedibly tough. For that reason, the best way to prepare octopus is to slow-cook it, like a pot roast, until the connective tissues soften and break down. Simmer it in water or broth until it is fork-tender, usually two hours or less, or slow-cook it without broth in its own juices.
Starters and Cold Dishes
Once your octopus is cooked fork-tender, you can do many things with it. Slice it diagonally and marinate it, then toss it with cold pasta or julienne vegetables to make a salad. The salad is even better if you grill the slices of octopus and serve it with a light ranch dressing. Marinated a little longer, octopus makes an excellent addition to an antipasto plate. For Asian-style salad rolls, slice the octopus thinly into matchsticks. Layer your still-hot octopus into a glass or ceramic loaf pan with other seafood items and press it overnight to make a terrine. Octopus skin is gelatinous enough when warm to bind the ingredients together.
Marinate and grill octopus, and serve it in slices over your favorite salad, pasta or rice dish. Diced or thinly sliced octopus goes well with pasta, in either a cream sauce or a tomato sauce. Simmer the octopus in tomato broth and combine it with several other varieties of fish or shellfish to make a Mediterranean-style seafood stew. Octopus also goes well with Asian meals, glazed with ginger and soy or sliced into your favorite stir-fry.
- "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Harold S. McGee; 2004
- The Splendid Table; Octopus Demystified; Mark Bittman; October 1999
- Food Network; Braised Octopus; Lidia Bastianich
- Epicurious; Octopus With Linguine; Rose Pascale; December 2000
- Epicurious; Charred Octopus with Peach, Arugula and Aged Balsamic; Eric Ripert; October 2010
- John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images