I made Octopus for dinner last Wednesday.
What’s more, I invited friends over and served it to them!
This turned out to be, altogether, a far more unnerving task that I originally envisioned. To recap, during one of my first grocery store trips in Spain, I came across octopus in the meat section and decided I had to cook something with it.
Here’s what it looked like when I bought it in the store:
Looking all neat and shrink-wrapped like that, I really didn’t think this would be such a challenge. After all, from subsequent reading I have since learned that sometimes the octopus comes whole, with the beak still intact, and you have to remove it yourself along with the head. So I figured starting with what looked like already cleaned octopus would be mostly a mental effort. I googled a few recipes, and eventually settled on one that Food & Wine specifically billed as “a smart, delicious, Spanish-inflected way to cook octopus.”
Sounded great to me. At this point, I noticed the recipe called for about twice the weight in octopus as I had. I considered doing a half-portion, but then while picking up the rest of the ingredients I needed, I noticed my more local grocery store also carried octopus. So I bought more. Because obviously.
Again, at this point I felt pretty certain that all I had to do was get over the idea of cooking octopus, and the actual preparation part would not be so bad. Unfortunately, the moment I cut open the package I discovered otherwise. The octopus had a distinct smell—a more pungent, oceanic smell than I expected—and was covered in a gelatinous slime, as if the brain fluid had leaked out and solidified after packaging, or the tentacles had secreted their own embalming fluid. I wasn’t sure what to do: was this stuff normal? Natural? A preservation byproduct?
What’s more, although the beak had been removed, half of the head was still attached. Because, as it turns out, what I had purchased were actually two halves of octopus. I wasn’t sure whether I should try cooking the head, and after a few moments reflection I decided that it didn’t look all that tasty and maybe the tentacles would be as much as any of us dare stomach anyway. So I rinsed everything off, hacked the tentacles from the head, and when I was done it looked almost like what I had expected to work with from the start.
For the record, the hardest part of rinsing the octopus off was that one point I think I nearly stuck my finger into its brain and dropped the whole thing in the sink.
The first part of the recipe called for boiling a pot of water with a copped onion and three bay leaves, dipping the octopus tentacles into the water 3 times each, and then simmering them for about an hour. For the record, almost every recipe I looked at began in this way, with variations on the stock ingredients and with the same tip of dipping the tentacles to help them keep their shape. The stock smelled nice, and by the time they were done I felt pretty sure (again) that the hard part was over.
Here’s what they looked like, drained.
The next step involved removing the octopus skin without losing the suckers. Again, most recipes called for this step, and said you could pretty much just wipe the skin off. By the time I took the octopus out of the water, the skin was, indeed, practically falling off. What I didn’t expect was how gooey it would feel. My octopus anatomy is pretty bad, but it felt like I was not only rubbing away the thin purplish skin, but a layer of fat underneath. All while trying to keep the suckers intact.
When I had finished, the round and chewy inner portion of the tentacle remained. I chopped it up into pits, and finished off the recipe. This cubing and boiling potatoes, chopping up some chorizo, cooking the chorizo for a bit in a pan, and then throwing the octopus and the potatoes in to brown them up and turn them golden.
Here are the results:
I felt a bit nervous serving the above to my friends, which is perhaps why I kept the chorizo generously sprinkled on top. My guests, however, seemed far less apprehensive than I. Indeed, every one of them ate their full portion and told me it was fantastic. So I guess that’s a win for me?
For my part, after cooking the whole meal I found I wasn’t hungry enough to eat most of it. It did really taste good, though. The octopus had a somewhat chewy texture, but then so has most octopus I’ve eaten. It tasted salty, and fishy, and (of course) a little bit like chicken.
Would I try cooking octopus again? Actually yes. But next time, I want to be able to grill it, as I think the crispy outer texture is what makes it taste so good.
The biggest thing I learned from this experience is that I really want to try some more Spanish recipes. Particularly seafood. I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try cooking things like mussels or prawns, but it seems like it could be a rewarding skill to have. And I do truly love paella, which often calls for both.
When will I try this? Who knows. Hopefully soon.
In the meantime, the remains of my octopus dinner await me in the fridge.