Sunday, February 14, 2016


Mira, que fresco,” said my favorite fishmonger, pointing to a slimy heap of octopuses on the counter. “Están casi vivos.” They’re almost alive. She pointed out the fresh-from-the-sea color, a mottled dun. Did the beast just blink?

“So, how do I prepare it?” I asked. Best way, she said, is to put it in the freezer for three days. Thaw, then wash well and cook in a big pot of water. Remove the innards from the creature after it’s been cooked.  OK, I can do that. I brought home a specimen weighing almost 1 ½ kilos (3 pounds).

Pulpo--fresh, uncooked octopus.

Octopus can be tough and rubbery. That’s why, freshly caught, it’s customary to beat it against the rocks to tenderize the flesh. Freezing breaks down the tissue fibers in the same manner—an easy tenderizing process.

And, cooking  before removing viscera avoids the “yuck” factor. Before cooking, the thawed octopus should be thoroughly washed in running water, paying special attention to cleaning grit out of the suckers.

Oh, by the way, the octopus has eight “arms,” not tentacles. Arms have suckers on their whole length, tentacles only on the ends.

The octopus has all its stuff—brains, heart(s), stomach, gonads—inside the globular head. This can be cleaned out either before or after cooking.

I cooked the octopus in the Spanish way—lowering it into boiling water three times before dropping it into the pot to cook. The initial hot water dip causes the appendages to curl and the skin to tighten so that it is less likely to split during cooking.

Figure about 10 minutes per pound cooking time. Test after 20 minutes by probing the thick part of a tentacle with a skewer. The octopus is done when the skewer easily pierces the flesh. If not tender, cook 5 minutes more and test again. My 3-pounder needed 25 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and leave the octopus in the cooking liquid for 20 minutes before draining. (If desired, the flavorful cooking liquid can be stored in freezer for other uses, such as cooking rice or fish soup.)

Cooked octopus. Eight "arms" and a globular head. Hole in the middle is its mouth.

When the octopus is cool enough to handle, use kitchen scissors to cut off the arms/tentacles. Cut them into bite-sized pieces. Cut out the eyes and discard them. Remove the beak—a hard bit in that hole in the center of the arms (yes, that’s its mouth). Turn the head inside-out. Discard all the viscera inside the head. If desired, pull off the outer skin and gelatinous layer just beneath the skin of the head pouch and discard them. Cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces.
Use scissors to cut into bite-size pieces.

The octopus is now ready to prepare in any recipe. It can be sautéed, grilled, stewed, mixed in a salad such as Andalusian pipirrana. I usually make a simple Galician dish with pimentón (paprika), olive oil and potatoes boiled in the cooking water.

But today I made pulpo in the manner I learned from my consuegra, Juana, my son Daniel’s mother-in-law. It’s one of our grandson Lucas’s favorite dishes.

The pulpo is cooked in a thick tomato sauce with finely chopped onions and peppers and seasoned with a Venezuelan spice blend called adobo. Adobo contains garlic, turmeric and oregano. Juana serves the octopus with white rice. It’s also good with potatoes cooked in the sauce. I’ve even made it with chunks of zucchini added to the sauce.

Tender pieces of octopus finish cooking in a tomato sauce.

Rice is a good side with the saucy octopus.

Juana’s Octopus with Tomato Sauce
Pulpo al Estilo de Juana 

Serves 4-6.

1 whole octopus, about 3 pounds, washed
16 cups water
4 bay leaves
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped green peppers
3 cloves chopped garlic
3 cups peeled and crushed fresh tomatoes (about 2 ¼ pounds)
1 teaspoon oregano
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
Freshly ground black pepper
Chile (optional)
Chopped parsley
Rice as an accompaniment

Wash those little suckers well!
Wash the octopus well in running water.

Bring water to a boil in a large pot with 2 teaspoons of salt and 3 bay leaves. Holding the octopus by the head, dip it, tentacles first, three times into the boiling water. Then lower it into the water to cook, covered. After 20 minutes, test for doneness by probing with a skewer. If not tender, cook 5 minutes more and test again.

Remove the pot from the heat. Leave the octopus in the cooking water for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onion, peppers and garlic until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, turmeric, pimentón, pepper, chile, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 bay leaf. Cook, partially covered, 20 minutes.

Add the cut-up octopus to the sauce with the 1 cup of reserved cooking liquid. Cook 20 minutes more.

Serve garnished with chopped parsley and rice on the side.

Galician-style octopus--pimentón, olive oil and salt.
A recipe for octopus Galician style can be found here. 


More tentacle adventures (squid):

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