31 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Braising Octopi

Before we leave Vatican City, Rome and our kitchen behind, we thought it would be nice to give our readers one last food post. So, here is how to make simple, delicious, braised octopus.
There are a lot of complicated recipes out there for cooking octopus. Many of them actually take less time than this method, but involve more work. We didn't make anything easier while here in Rome. The problem for many people will be finding octopi - all Italian fish markets have a few lying around, but they're rarer in the US. Apparently, using frozen octopus can actually work quite well because the tentacles are softened with freezing. That may or may not be true, but it's probably more convenient for a lot of people. We started with two medium-sized, purplish, fresh squigglers from a gruff man at Trionfale market.
The body can be discarded for this recipe, which saves a lot of work - frankly, we don't know how to clean out the ink sac or remove the beak. Cut the tentacles off right at the base, where they come together, making sure to get as much of the thick meat at the fattest part. Also, snip off the very ends of the tentacles if they are very thin and threadlike - one of our octopi had this problem, the other didn't. It's easy meat to work with, because it holds together well yet cuts easily. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees fahrenheit.
When you're finished, scald the tentacles for thirty seconds in boiling water. Make sure that your pot is big enough and that you have enough water - if you have a small pot, like we did, dunk the arms in batches, letting the water come back to a boil in between. Let the octopus dry in a colander.
Now, you're almost done. Put the tentacles in a heavy pot with a good cover. Don't add any liquid - the liquid in the picture above was entirely extruded from the tentacles during cooking. Quarter one yellow onion and halve four cloves of garlic, then add them to the pot. Don't salt it! There's a lot of salt in the meat already.
Cover the pot and put it in the oven. Keep the pot in there for five hours at 200 degrees. Open the windows, because your kitchen will begin to smell strongly of octopus.
After five hours (maybe a little less, if you know how to test octopus for doneness), take the pot out of the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Then, strain out the liquid - I'm sure you could reduce it to make a sauce, but we didn't - and serve.
We ate the dish with maltagliati pasta "al nero di seppia," which is essentially raggedly cut, flat pasta blackened with cuttlefish ink. Also, chicory hearts, pear and shaved brussels sprout salad. The black pasta seemed appropriate; it had a nice, hearty, nutty flavor that didn't need any sauce aside from olive oil and parsley. The chicory hearts were so prettily curly that we knew we had to put them on the same plate as the spiraling tentacles.
Here's a picture of the maltagliati before it was cooked. The pieces look just like blue corn tortilla chips, don't they?
For those who need it, here's the recipe:

1 or 2 medium to large octopi
1 small yellow onion
4 cloves garlic

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees fahrenheit.
Rinse the octopus very well in cold water, then cut the tentacles off at the very base. Discard the body.
Blanch the tentacles in boiling water for 30 seconds, then let drain.
Put the tentacles in a large pot (preferably cast iron or something else heavy) with the onion (quartered) and the garlic (halved). Put the pot in the oven and bake for 5 hours.
Remove the pot from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

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