Chef Mike gets adventurous with a tasty denizen of the deeps
Spring has officially arrived and Chattanoogans are beginning to emerge from the honey-glazed ham and sweet potato induced food comas that blanketed us through the cold, gray Tennessee winter.
I am certainly not going to suggest that there can ever be “too much pork” or that your palate could become weary of bottomless mashed potato and gravy bowls, but after completing the Kobayashi-esque eating marathon that is Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter it’s safe to say that our bodies could use a break from the oleaginous cloud that hangs over carb and cured meat season.
What could be better than lean, healthy and delicious octopus to kick-start the fresh flavors of Spring? That’s right, I said octopus.
Even though octopus has been a staple of Mediterranean and Asian diets for millennia, Americans still think octopus belongs wrapped around the Nautilus or plotting to steal mermaid’s voices rather than on our dinner plates.
If you’ve ever bitten into rubbery, chewy or fibrous octopus, I understand why you may be put off by these tentacled cephalopods. But when cooked properly, octopus has a delicate flavor that’s slightly sweet, with a taste that’s somewhere between scallop and lobster.
The problem lies in octopus’ reputation of being a challenge to make tender as well as the scores of cultural culinary myths that surround its preparation. Some say salting is essential to tenderness; others say dip it briefly in boiling water; still others say to rub it with grated daikon or add a wine cork to the cooking liquid. None of these consistently work by themselves.
Since octopus have no skeleton to support their muscles, the muscles within their arms support each other, meaning they are full of connective tissues. These connective tissues have to be heated to around 130° before they begin to dissolve, (don’t cook it too long or it will dry out and becomes rubbery anyway).
So forget corks and beating the poor dead thing with Asian radishes, it turns out that buying frozen (freezing and thawing kickstarts the tenderizing process) then cooking low and slow produces a tender finished product, similar to any connective tissue laden protein.
I prefer a very quick blanch followed by slow roasting. An octopus is about 80% moisture, so when it’s roasted slowly in a dry pan, it releases more than half its weight in juices, which are slightly briny, but savory and packed with umami. Save those juices and boil them down to concentrate them. You’ll not only get tender octopus, but a flavorful, gelatinous sauce as well. Or, for something even brighter, try my Roasted Octopus with Fennel and Citrus below.
Roasted Octopus with Fennel and Citrus
- 1 5-6 lb octopus
- 3 oranges
- 2 cups Sherry
- 2 Serrano chilies, split
- 1 fennel bulb with fronds
- 1 grapefruit
- 4 tbsp roughly chopped black olives
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 275°
Cook octopus in a large pot of boiling salted water for 30 seconds. Transfer to an ice bath to cool, then drain. Tip: Dip the octopus in the boiling water three times before submerging it completely and the tentacles will curl up and make a nice finished presentation.
Combine the octopus, Sherry and chilies with the zest and juice from two oranges in a Dutch oven or other heavy, oven-safe pot. Cover tightly and bake about two hours or until a sharp knife goes into the thickest part with little resistance, kind of like a baked potato. Let cool.
While the octopus is cooking, prepare the salad. Slice the fennel bulb very thinly and place in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration. Peel the grapefruit and remaining orange then cut (or “supreme”) individual slices of orange, using a knife to separate each slice from the white skin that connects one to the next. Repeat with the grapefruit.
Squeeze the juice from the remaining citrus carcasses into a bowl. Add 5 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and whisk together to finish the dressing. Salt and pepper to taste.
Once the octopus has cooled, drain and cut into manageable pieces. Prepare the salad by placing the drained, sliced fennel onto a plate, then arrange the citrus segments, black olives and sliced octopus around nicely (because you know this is going straight to Instagram). Drizzle the dressing on top, followed by a light drizzle of good quality olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of black pepper.
Top with a few fennel frond sprigs for that final food-porn touch and serve.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits