Ingredient Spotlight: Octopus

published Oct 15, 2009
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I think that octopus is a misunderstood food. Many people are often put off by the idea of eating it. Maybe they’re afraid of it, or they think the tentacles are disgusting. Perhaps they had a bad experience with octopus prepared in a way that masked the deliciousness of this cephalopod. I’m hoping that this post will convert more people into eating octopus, because it’s cheap, healthy, and yummy!

Many cultures eat octopus, from the Asians to the Mediterranean Europeans to South and Central Americans. As there are abundant sources of wild octopus off U.S. coastal waters, I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t become a part of American cuisine. Well – to be honest, most Americans have encountered octopus only in deep-fried form and covered in marinara sauce, and this isn’t a fair presentation of this delicacy.

The first time I had octopus was at an Italian restaurant when I was a kid in Miami. My father had ordered a pasta dish that had assorted seafood in marinara sauce, and one of the seafood ingredients was whole baby octopus. I was always a pretty adventurous eater so I asked if I could try some. I took a bite and loved it, so we ordered another plate to take home.

Octopus is found in Asian markets, and sometimes found in the seafood departments of upscale markets. Sometimes it can be found in Latin American markets – the Spanish name for octopus is “pulpo.” The Japanese call it “tako.” Octopus can be purchased in whole, raw form, and sometimes, live. It can also be purchased already-boiled, cut in portions, and shrink-wrapped. It’s also sold in dried and frozen form. Catalina Offshore Products also sells it online.

Octopus is the key ingredient in takoyaki, a savory Japanese street food of fried octopus balls. It can also be cooked in the ubiquitous Japanese pancake, okonomiyaki, or in oden, a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs winter stew. It is also a popular sushi item. Whole baby octopus grilled and tossed with olive oil, lemon, garlic, parsley, and fresh tomatoes is a common seafood salad in the Mediterranean region. Octopus grilled in white wine with potatoes, peppers, and garlic is a delicious tapa in Spain. In Peru, octopus is stewed with tomatoes and corn. Dried octopus is like beef jerky and served along with beer and spicy kimchi pickles in many bars in Korea. There are just so many ways to eat octopus!

The texture is firm and it is satisfyingly chewy, but it should not be rubbery. If it is too chewy then that’s a sign it’s overcooked. The flavor is unique – it has a faint taste of the sea and a slight sweetness to it. The mouthfeel is very interesting. The skin is subtly pebbly in texture, the flesh is firm and smooth, and the suckers add a whole new dimension to the experience.

Choosing and Preparation of Octopus

If you’re buying a raw octopus, make sure it has been recently caught and is not giving off any strong odors. It should smell like the sea in a pleasant, fresh, salty way, but not offensive. Rinse it under cold water. Octopus needs to be tenderized before cooking, so beat it for a few minutes with a rolling pin or a meat tenderizer. Add to a pot of boiling salted water and boil for a hour. When it can be easily cut with a fork, it is ready. Leave it in the water and let the water cool off before removing the octopus. From here on it can be sliced up and added to your favorite recipes. Some people say that freezing an octopus is a very good way to tenderize it but I haven’t tried it. If you’re planning to grill or saute the octopus, no need to boil; just cut up and add to the heat source and cook until firm and opaque.

If buying a precooked octopus, the skin should be dark purple (like in the photograph above) and the flesh should be white. It should smell slightly like the ocean, but not overly fishy. Rinse it off in cold water and pat dry. From here, you can slice it up for sashimi or nigiri, or you can use it in recipes for octopus salad.

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(Image: Kathryn Hill)