The Hungry Engineer


29 Feb 2016

Our three-year-old daughter Maya has a stuffed octopus named Oddipuddy that she’s carried around with her since she learned how to crawl. It is her comfort object. We cannot leave the house without hearing her exclaim, “Where’s Oddipuddy?” He goes everywhere with us.

It is not uncommon for us to have to help her locate this octopus several times a day, but it is when we are about to leave the house for a scheduled event that it’s the most frustrating. My husband and I turn the house upside down hunting for Oddipuddy, muttering (or exclaiming), “Where’s the damn octopus!”

octopus fresh from grocery store

One of Maya’s favorite things to do is to borrow the phone of whichever parent she’s with and message the other parent a bunch of emojis, her favorite of which is a little octopus, of course. She’s very particular as she scrolls through the emojis about which she send. Just the other night, I hear, “Daddy wants cake, lots of cake,” as she’s sending him little slices of cake.

My husband was driving her home from the grocery store a while back and she had his phone sending me emojis. She quietly sets about her work and then he hears from her sweet little three year old mouth in her sweet little three year old voice, “Where’s the damn octopus?” Now she can’t send emojis without referring to him this way. “Mom, I want to send the damn octopus to Dad.”

raw octopi

For weeks and weeks, whenever I’d ask Maya what she’d like me to cook for the next week’s menu, she’d tell me octopus. She’s tried bites of it at restaurants, so I figured she’d at least have a taste at home, but I wasn’t sure she’d actually eat it if served to her for dinner. Eventually, I gave in and decided we’d make octopus for her. After digging around online a bit, I came up with a rough method and a list of culturally interesting things folks have done to try and make octopus tender.

It turns out that all you really need to do is cook it till it’s tender.

cutting beaks from octopi

The octopi we purchased from the grocery store had already been eviscerated, so what we had were tentacles and an empty mantle (the sac-like portion opposite the tentacles). The only real butchery we had to do was to remove the beak, or mouth, which can be found smack dab in the center of all those tentacles.

cutting heads from octopi

I couldn’t really find a rule on whether the head was eaten or not. In Italy, years ago, we had a soup of baby octopi along the Ligurian coast (one of the best meals of the trip), and those had heads. On the other hand, most people seem to cut them off either before or after cooking. Here’s where I settled: for the size octopi we had, there wasn’t much meat wasted by chucking the heads, so that’s what I did.

cutting heads from octopi

After giving Maya (and our curious cat) a bit of time to check them out and feel their tentacles and suckers and see how the parts (tentacles, siphon, mantle, beak!) lined up with her First Big Book of Animals, I set about cleaning them up for cooking. After a thorough washing, I sliced the heads off just between the eyes and the tentacles. With the bottom up, I cut around the beak and pushed it through from the head side of the octopus toward the underside. And just like that, they were ready for cooking. If we hadn’t been letting Maya examine them and hadn’t been taking photos, it would only have taken a couple minutes.

I made a poaching liquid by first searing sliced lemons in a bit of oil, then chucking in a few cloves of garlic, a quartered onion, and some peppercorns, maybe 10-15. Once the alliums had taken on a bit of color, I deglazed with a cup of white wine, then added maybe a quart of water. I salted this till it tasted nice and brought it to a low boil.

cutting heads from octopi

Then I carefully lowered the octopus in. This was probably my favorite part. When you add the cold, lanky-legged creatures to the hot water, their tentacles curl into beautiful, sucker-speckled spirals.

And then I cooked it till it was done. With octopus, it seems, that’s really all you can do. The recipe I was using as my main guide gave 90 minutes as a cooking interval. I first checked around maybe 45 minutes by gently poking at what was left of the body with a paring knife. I should have taken them out then, because the knife slid right in, meeting little resistance. Instead I let it cook a bit longer because I was worried.

cutting heads from octopi

On skin removal … One of my references said to remove it before cooking. Another reference said to rub it off once the octopus had been cooked. Yet another said to leave it on because it became rich and gelatinous. That last one sounded good to me. My only quibble is that the skin became so incredibly soft that handling the tentacles with tongs scraped off a bit of the skin and left my octopus looking a little diseased.

cutting heads from octopi

At any rate, I pulled the beheaded nests of curled tentacles from the poaching liquid and laid them in a tray to cool and dry. Once cooled, I separated the tentacles and lightly salted them. I heated oil in nonstick frying pan till shimmery and gently added the octopus, laying it in a single layer in the pan to achieve a good sear. It didn’t take but a couple minutes per side to achieve some nice coloring.

cutting heads from octopi

We served them simply with a little lemon butter for dipping. The texture was firm, but not rubbery. The flavor was clean and pleasant - not overrun by the liquid it was cooked in. Maya loved it. She gleefully chose which tentacles she wanted to eat, picked them up with her hand, and chomped down on bite after sucker-studded bite. And then she asked for seconds.

cutting heads from octopi

There seems to be a lot of lore around octopus cooking. Here is a list of things I did not do, and my octopus seemed not to suffer for it: beat the creatures with a rock before cooking, add a penny to the cooking water, add the cork from the wine bottle to the cooking water, dip them three times into the cooking water before finally nestling them in.

Ingredient List:
1 lemon, sliced
3-4 cloves garlic
1 onion, quartered
10-15 peppercorns
1 c white wine
a couple pounds of octopus

Food52 - How to Cook Octopus
Bon Appetit - A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Over Your Fear of Octopus
The Splendid Table - Octopus Demystified

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