Sunday, May 6, 2012

Delicacy of a Sea Monster: Cooking With Octopus

It was years ago in Kaş, a fishing village on the rocky southern coast of Turkey. A fisherman had caught an octopus and was beating the thing silly. I was watching it from a distance. He raised it over his head and crashed it hard and repeatedly on the rocky pier. Next, he swung it over his head, round and round as its octo-arms swirled in the air. I thought he was making a show of it. Later, I found out the beating is done to tenderise the no-bones-all-muscle octopus, and the swinging to get rid of the slime. 

While I've eaten octopus many times, I never cooked it myself. Until recently. Less romantic than buying it from a fisherman on a rocky pier, I got my octopus at the seafood section of Carrefour Dubai. Tenderized, cleaned and ready to cook. It is a weird looking sea creature. A slimy, pale mass with a lump of a body and sprawling arms dotted with suckers. In its legendary, mythical proportions of the Kraken, the octopus becomes a sea monster. A magnificent beast of the sea. Lying there on my kitchen counter, I felt sorry for it. I could see it floating freely in the sea waters. Now, it was about to be cooked and eaten. I picked it up. It wobbled in my hand like a giant jelly pudding, and I felt its suction-cupped arms sliding down my hands and wrists. I took a deep breath, trying not to shudder, and put it into a stock pot to simmer slowly. The kitchen filled with the sweet salty aromas of soft boiling seafood. 

Octopus is a wonderfully delicious meat. It is tender and naturally full of flavor. The same as cuttlefish or squid, octopus shrinks substantially when cooked (a kilo of raw octopus yields around 350 gr of cooked meat). The octopus also changes color: from a dull greyish pink to deep shades of red and hues of orange brown. I tried out three ways to prepare the octopus: a quick boil and then grill, a slow, gentle simmer, and finally stewing it.

The recipes below draw on the aromatic, savory flavors of the octopus. The first one combines it grilled with the sweetness of roasted peppers and herbal freshness of young salad leaves. In the second recipe, super tender octopus is mixed with vegetables that were blanched in the same stock. In the last one, all of the octopus' natural flavors turn a simple tomato sauce into to a fragrant, richly flavored stew.

grilled octopus and roasted peppers

Grilled Octopus with Roasted Peppers, Purslane & Red Orach
(appetizer/recipe for 4)

  • 1 kg octopus, cleaned and tenderised
  • 1 of each red, yellow, and orange peppers (roasted, peeled and seeds taken out)
  • handful each of purslane and orach leaves*
  • a pinch dried chili flakes
  • 1 tsp grated orange peel
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1-2 crushed garlic cloves
  • salt flakes
Bring lightly salted water to a boil, add the octopus whole and boil for about 15 minutes. Cool and cut the arms and body into (still large) pieces. Toss in olive oil and lemon juice (don't use all as you need some of it for the roasted peppers). Add crushed garlic. Leave to marinade for 30 minutes to an hour. Skewer the pieces (it makes it easier to handle on the barbecue). Grill on a medium hot barbecue for about 10 minutes, turning every now and then. 

Cut the roasted peppers in strips, add the orange peel and the chili flakes. Toss with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Season (to taste) with the salt flakes. Cut the grilled octopus in smaller pieces. Scatter the young salad leaves on a plate. Arrange the roasted peppers on top and add the pieces of grilled octopus.

*Purslane's light-green small leaves have a refreshing, almost salty taste. The red orach's vibrant colored leaves have the earthy taste of wild spinach. As salad leaves, it is a nice balance with the sweet roasted capsicum and tender grilled octopus. Any similar or other young salad leaf will do.

Salad of Octopus, Fennel, Potato, Celeri & Kalamata Olives
(appetizer/recipe for 4)
octopus salad served with (homemade) taramosalata

  • 1 kg octopus, cleaned and tenderized
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 cup each of small diced fennel, potato, celeri
  • 1 cup pitted and chopped kalamata olives
  • 1 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt flakes

Slowly simmer the octopus whole in a basic stock. It may seem like a very little amount of stock, but the octopus will add to it: a lot of liquid comes out of the octopus as you cook it. Take it out after about an hour to test the tenderness. If you are happy with it, proceed. If still not tender enough, simmer longer. My octopus was super tender after an hour. I guess the fisherman who caught it, tenderised it well. Let cool and when cool enough to handle, cut in bite size chunks.

In the meantime, bring 2 cups of the octopus stock to a boil, and cook the potatoes soft but with a bite, then quickly blanch (about 1 minute) the celeri and fennel in the same boiling stock.  Add all the vegetables to the octopus, and mix in the parsley and kalamata olives. Add the olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice, season to taste with the salt flakes. This salad is perfect to serve lukewarm, or at room temperature.

Tomato-based Octopus Stew
(main course/recipe for 4)
  • 1 kg octopus, cleaned and tenderized, cut into smaller pieces
  • 1 cup peeled and diced tomatoes, pureed (canned is fine)
  • 1 medium onion, diced fine
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • pinch of dried chili flakes
  • salt/black pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil and fry the onions over medium heat softly until they glaze. Add the octopus pieces and stir-fry over medium heat for 3-5 minutes. Add the chili flakes, garlic and fry for another minute or so on medium heat. Cover and let it cook over low heat for about 15 minutes (you will see a reddish liquid coming from the octopus: it is your natural seafood stock). Add the pureed tomatoes and bring all to a boil. Gently simmer in the tomato sauce for about 45 minutes, or until the octopus is tender. If you don't want your sauce to be too liquid, leave the lid either half-on or completely off. Keep an eye on it, in case too much liquid evaporates. Finish with some fine chopped parsley or basil. Season to taste.


  1. It took me a while before I could actually click open the post cause octopii do gross me out somewhat. BUT, the only (and best) octopus I've eaten is at this French restaurant in New York: "Charred Octopus "a la plancha"; Green Olive and Black Garlic Emulsion, Sundried Tomato Sauce Vierge"

    It was octopus with the smokiness of wood...SO good. I don't think I could ever cook with it at home though, but I still read your recipes so at least I know what goes on behind the scenes to get those suckers on the table! ;)

  2. Well done Francine! Octopus has always been a no-go zone for me. I simply hated it until I tried some grilled octopus on the Dalmatian coast last year - it was incredible! When I finally get the guts to cook it myself I'm going to come here. Very informative, thankyou

  3. Octopus! My favorite! Very good article! I hope I can find some restaurant that serve yummilicious octopus in Dubai!