Holding a dead octopus has got to be one of the strangest sensations. It’s humbling to feel its slippery weight in your hands and imagine what it must have looked like in the sea: an otherworldly creature propelling itself through the water, tentacles curling and flexing with graceful force. There’s something both terrifying and thrilling in the way the suction cups stick to your hands, releasing with a little pop – like the octopus still thinks it’s clinging to a rock deep in the ocean, even though it’s miles away, dangling above your kitchen sink.
Uprooted from its underwater kingdom, an octopus may look like a deflated version of its previous self, its color a muted gray-purple, its tentacles hanging limp. But simmering in a pot of water has a transformative effect. In a sort of stovetop alchemy, the slow-bubbling water restores firmness to the octopus’ flesh, bringing out the vibrant purples and pinks in its skin and coaxing its tentacles into playful spirals.
Mediterranean and Asian cultures, particularly Japan, have long mastered the art of cooking octopus. And it truly is an art: simmering long enough to allow the meat to become tender, with a slight chew, but not so much that it tenses up and turns rubbery.
Traveling around the world, you’ll encounter different tricks to achieving this treasured consistency. In Greece, Portugal, and other Mediterranean countries, people whack the raw octopus against ocean rocks. Japanese cooks, on the other hand, rub the flesh with grated daikon or salt. Italians add a wine cork to the boiling water, since cork contains an enzyme that helps tenderize meat. Lidia Bastianich, a dependable authority on Italian cooking, recommends one cork for every two pounds of octopus.
In Spain, the octopus is dunked in boiling water, tentacles first, in three short bursts before being completely submerged. Spaniards also cook the octopus in copper kettles since the chemical reaction between the metal and flesh lends a reddish color to the skin (if you want this effect but don’t have a copper pot, you can also toss a penny into the mix).
Perhaps the most celebrated of octopus recipes is pulpo a la gallega, or Galician-style octopus. It’s a dish that you’re bound to find as part of a tapas spread: pieces of octopus laid over a bed of golden potatoes, glistening with olive oil and covered with a dusting of brick red Spanish paprika. Its charm lies in the way it manages to be comfortingly rustic and irresistibly exotic at the same time.
As its name suggests, pulpo a la gallega comes from Galicia, an area in the northwest corner of Spain. In Galician, a combination of Spanish and Portuguese languages, the dish is also called polbo á feira, or fair-style octopus, since it is the centerpiece of a rich tradition of October festivals honoring Saint Froilán, an important saint in the region’s history. During these celebrations, women called polbeiras (literally, “octopus-cooking women”) simmer octopus in huge copper cauldrons and serve it alongside cachelos, boiled potatoes, on traditional wooden plates.
Even without a big copper pot, making pulpo a la gallega is surprisingly easy and yields impressive results – a plate full of bright colors and salty-smoky flavors. With the recipe below, I’ve deviated a bit from Spanish traditions and Italianized things by using the wine cork method.
A note on sourcing an octopus: the prospect of finding good fresh octopus may seem daunting, but don’t despair – often it’s actually better to buy a frozen one. Chilled shortly after it’s been caught, a frozen octopus usually promises greater freshness than one that has been sitting around in seafood displays for several days (just defrost the day before you cook). Either way, avoid anything that smells like fish. The octopus will usually come already cleaned; all you have to do is remove the “beak,” located at the bottom-center of the skirt, with a knife.
Polbo á feira / Galician Style Octopus / Pulpo a la gallega
Serves about 6, as part of a tapas spread
4-5 lb octopus
About 2 lbs medium-size waxy yellow potatoes, peeled
Generous pour of extra virgin olive oil
Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
About 2-3 tablespoons pimentón (sweet Spanish paprika)
Salt, to taste
A couple of wine corks
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In the meantime, rinse the octopus under cold water.
2. When the water boils, submerge the entire octopus in the water, and add the bay leaf and wine corks. Bring the water back to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to allow the octopus to cook at a medium simmer.
3. Let the octopus cook for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on its size. You’ll know the octopus is done when you can pierce it easily at its thickest part, the skirt area, with a knife – just like a potato. About halfway into the cooking time, add the potatoes to the same pot.
4. When the octopus is tender and the potatoes are done, turn off the heat and let them sit in the pot. Meanwhile, chop the parsley.
5. After about 15 minutes, drain the contents of the pot, discarding the bay leaf and corks.
6. Slice the potatoes into thick rounds (about ½ inch) or large chunks and place on a serving plate. Sprinkle with salt.
7. With a pair of kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the octopus tentacles into medium pieces. Chop the octopus head into bite-size chunks – though this is optional, since some do not consider the head as flavorful as the tentacles. Arrange the octopus on top of the potatoes.
8. Using a spoon, liberally dust the octopus and potatoes with the pimentón, then season with salt and dress with a generous pour of olive oil. Finish off the plate with a sprinkle of fresh parsley.