octopus demystified

Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated to buy my first octopus at the fish market. Usually it is sitting in a heaping pile at the back of the fish counter - gray, covered in suckers and just generally unpleasant to the eye. However, when cooked properly, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying meals, full of flavor and texture. When my husband and I traveled in Spain last year, I could not get enough octopus and made a point of ordering it anytime it was on a menu (which was often). I put it in the category of "something I order at a restaurant" but finally worked up the courage and wherewithal this week to buy one and prepare at home for the very first time. Be sure to ask your fishmonger to clean the octopus for you, otherwise you will need to do a bit of research on removing the guts and beak from the head.

Octopus and squid are ancient sea creatures without skeletons; this means that when cooked, their muscles, supported by connective tissue, can toughen and become very chewy if not handled properly. The key to cooking octopus is "low and slow," according to an expert chef friend. Often recipes call for braising octopus at a low simmer for at least an hour in a mixture of water, white wine, and lemon, to allow the meat to soften and tenderize. When the octopus has simmered to doneness, you should be able to slip a knife into a thick part of a leg with ease. During the cooking process, the octopus will shrink considerably as it is a very water-logged animal. You should plan on the octopus losing about half its weight from start to finish.

Once the octopus has been slow-cooked all the way through, you should rinse off the exterior skin gently under a sink faucet (but don't remove the suckers!) and leave it to cool until you are ready to prepare your final dish. You may choose to grill the octopus, slice and pan-saute, or serve sliced and chilled on a salad. To grill the octopus, as I did, toss it liberally with olive oil and salt and then cook on a very high-heat grill until slightly crispy and colored (several minutes on each side). Be sure not to overcook the octopus on the grill as it will then dry out inside in your attempt to blacken the exterior. You can then slice and serve with a sauce, over grains, or with a delicious summer salad.

I hope you take the plunge and buy your own octopus at some point. I promise, as mysterious as the creatures may seem, they can be delicious and easy to prepare in the comfort of your own kitchen.