Octopus Obsession

Octopus Obsession
Photo: Maike Jessen/Getty Images

It's a running joke. When I go to a restaurant that has octopus on the menu, my friends laugh and say, "Well, we know what he is going to order." It's no use protesting. I love that ugly, suction-cupped piece of firm, slightly reddish brown flesh from the sea. And my test of a kitchen is whether it can produce a great octopus dish—of which there are many.

I have consumed octopus salad with diced potatoes and garlic. I have had octopus tossed into green salads, the tentacles cut into small disks. I have eaten lightly braised octopus, thinly sliced in a tartare style, laced with some garlic and capers and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and served warm on the plate laid out like a fan. I have had it roasted on a wood grill, the entire leg and body charred with smoke, and splashed with a little olive oil. I have eaten octopus in Paris, New York, Havana and Mexico.

The common denominators linking all these cephalapod dishes are four pairs of arms (even if the name means eight feet), a beak and lots of suction cups. Fossils date back some 300 million years, and scientists believe that octopuses (Webster's plural, though we prefer the elegant octopi) are the most intelligent of invertebrates. Were their life spans longer than five years, we might be living on the Planet of the Octopi.

In the eating, experts find little or no difference between frozen and fresh octopus, and, in fact, the former may be better because it begins the tenderizing process. The preparation is easy. Cut the tentacles off and discard the head, or if you're using the whole body, clean the innards from the head sac and remove the beak as if coring a tomato. (Most market octopuses come cleaned.) Drop it into a pot of water (you can add a bay leaf, thyme sprigs and peppercorns), bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Depending on size, simmer for an hour or up to two to three hours until tender—pierce the flesh with a knife to test. There's a debate about whether to remove the gelatinous skin; I prefer to leave it on.

In the serving, the sky's the limit. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice, and serve either warm or cold. Let it marinate in lime juice, olive oil and garlic, and throw it on a hot grill for three to five minutes, and get that wonderful charred exterior. Or cut into pieces and sauté for a few minutes in whatever mixture of spices, tomatoes or garlic and oil you prefer. Done properly, octopus is moist and tender in every preparation. But overcooking in the second stage will dry out the flesh and make it tough again.

Don't put any stock in the notion that the octupus's intelligence makes it brain food—they also die after mating. Ignore the myths and just enjoy the meal.