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By correctly predicting the winners of each Germany’s 2010 World Cup matches, as well as the tournament’s final, Paul the Octopus (hatched 2008, d. 2010) won millions of fans and sadly, a few detractors. Argentine chef Nicolas Beddorou posted an octopus recipe to his Facebook page after Paul predicted Argentina’s loss. And formerly fanatical German fans turned frenemies when Paul predicted Germany’s loss to Spain, threatening to fry the Deutschland Darling in garlic and butter. Such is your fate when you’re both prescient and delicious. But Paul’s predictions pale in comparison to his true achievement: helping make octopus the new the new “it” food. It’s the au courant “chicken-of-the-sea.”
There are Italian octopus salads and stews, spicy Korean stir-fries, Japanese sushi (poached octopus) and sashimi (raw octopus) and even tostadas. Fat Rosie’s Taco and Tequila Bar in Chicago tops a crispy tostada with charred baby octopus, grilled onion, roasted Serrano Chiles and arbol tomatillo sauce. Greeks, however, have always been and remain octopi maestros. Chef Jim Botsacos’ Octopadi Skharas, found at New York City’s Molyvos, is a modern-without-being-trendy interpretation of traditional Greek grilled baby octopus. He serves it with arugula, oven-dried tomatoes, smoked Fingerling potatoes, capers and dill. Botsacos also braises tiny thumb-sized octopi with tomatoes, then tosses with pasta. He can go through as much as four-hundred pounds of octopus per week.
Despite its versatility and similarity to squid, octopus has been viewed as a second-class cephalopod for a few reasons. Cooking it requires a lot more than battering in tempura, semolina or flour followed by a cozy dip in the deep-fryer. And, frankly, some find its appearance a buzz-kill. Squid’s delicate tentacles and circular rings are simply more appealing than an octopus’ more robust arms, larger suction cups and hollow head.
Not so, says Chef Victoria Granof, who styles food for some of the country’s leading photographers and magazines. “Aesthetically, it’s like this Dale Chihuly chandelier of a fish,” she says, referencing the famed glass-blower whose fantastical creations grace Las Vegas’ Bellagio. “Just so beautiful—the tentacles, the suction cups. It’s so perfectly art-directed you just want to eat it.” Others however, just want to beat it.
“What you always hear about in Greece is people beating octopus against rocks to tenderize,” says Botsacos, who’s of Greek and Italian descent and also helms the Italian eatery, Abbocatto. “Then they hang it in the sun to dry.”
An octopus is essentially eight legs with a sac (head). Fishmongers pull out the stomach and ink sac but leave the eyes and beak intact, which have to be removed. Lacking a skeleton and tendons, an octopus’ connective tissue spreads throughout its muscles to support them. That’s what makes the meat very tough and cooking, a challenge. Don’t cook it yourself the first time that you try it or you’ll end up ordering a hamburger.
There’s a pleasing chewiness and a slight resistance when you bite into properly cooked octopus. It tastes like the ocean without the fishiness. Overcooked, it’s dry, tasteless and like eating a garden hose. There are lots of schools of thought on how to best break down its toughness to yield the right taste and texture.
Tenderizing is the first step. Freezing helps and most octopi are frozen anyway for shipping. Fishmongers often put thawed octopi in something that looks like a washing machine with spikes that contains a brining solution. It turns and breaks down the connective tissue. It’s like that butcher’s machine that tenderizes a top round steak that by hitting it with needles.
Barbecue’s mantra of “low and slow” works for octopus. Botsacos says to braise it and either eat it that way or grill it, slightly charring the tentacle ends till they’re crispy and curly. A traditional, supposedly foolproof and time-consuming method requires three separate pots of boiling water with a cork bobbing away in each. Dip a two- to three-pound octopus in the first pot. Once it comes back to the boil, remove the octopus. Let it rest, then dip into the second pot. Remove again and rest. Repeat this process nine times—three dips in each pot. If you have a life or want one, stick to braising and grilling.
Botsacos braises in a court bouillon, a classic poaching liquid flavored with water, salt, pepper, white wine, carrots, onion and celery and herbs like parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf. He refrigerates it after cooking to firm up the flesh. He then grills it or tosses it with olive oil, oregano, lemon and garlic, parsley, sometimes pepperoncini. Or he slices it and adds thinly-sliced celery hearts, black Gaeta olives, garlic, red onion, parsley and red -wine vinegar. “There’s a briny-ness from the olives while parsley and celery cleanse the palate,” he says.
For Octopus Pie, Botsacos cooks down onion, garlic, a touch of tomato, cinnamon, oregano, grated zucchini and rice. He slices poached octopus into the mixture, cools it, adds parsley and pats it into small “pita” molds. “Pita” refers to the circular pocket bread available in most markets but it’s also the generic Greek word for “pie.” He covers it with strips of phyllo dough, pokes a few air holes and bakes.
Because you can’t bread it, fry it or melt cheese over it, octopus will never have mass-market appeal. And because it requires either carefully-calibrated braising or boiling, it resists the kind of culinary acrobatics that fusion chefs love. And that’s just peachy with Granof. “Fusion chefs are not torturing it because the preparation doesn’t lend itself to any weird, fusion-y techniques or ingredients,” say Granof. It remains pure and delicious, she says, and “is still treated with respect.” As was Paul.
Paul is gone but fellow animal psychic, Mani, a Malaysian Rose-Ringed parakeet (hatched 1997) seems poised to assume Paul’s mantle. The jury’s out on whether parakeet will become the new “it” food when Mani goes to meet his maker.