OCTOPUS IS A TEST: Prepare it correctly and it is absolutely delicious, mildly flavored like abalone, with a texture that is only slightly chewier than a pan-seared scallop.
Cook it willy-nilly and it can feel like a wide rubber band is doing the cha-cha with your molars.
So it has been of special interest to me that so many Orange County chefs have made it de rigueur on their menus. Fearless in their approaches, they have mastered the leggy sea creatures, turning them from tough to tender and accompanying them with scrumptious sauces, vinaigrettes or broths. Here’s a taste:
Alan Greeley, Costa Mesa
Alan Greeley, Chef-Owner of The Golden Truffle in Costa Mesa, is a long-time octopus advocate. It’s been on his menu for over twenty years. His make-it-tender approach is something between deep-tissue massage and aggressive shiatsu.
Greeley puts the gangly beasts into his octopus-only-no-soap washing machine and runs them through a couple of cycles along with crushed ice, rock salt and a handful of ball bearings. It’s a technique he fashioned after a similar method he observed at Milos Restaurant, a Greek eatery in Montreal, Canada.
“It tenderizes the heck out of it,” Greeley says. “Afterwards I slowly simmer it until it is fork tender, two hours in white wine, plus pickling spices – mustard seeds, bay leaf, plus a habanero (chili), carrots and leeks.”
Before service, the braised and cooled octopus is slathered with olive oil plus a little chili flakes, salt and pepper, then grilled about two minutes on each side.
Grilled octopus might end up in a gazpacho-esque cocktail along with sweet onion, chopped tomato, cilantro, jalapeno and avocado. Sometimes he likes to serve it au natural accompanied with lemon wedges and house-made hot sauce.
Yves Fournier, Irvine
Parisian-born Yves Fournier, Executive Chef at Andrei’s in Irvine, says that part of the tenderness secret is to add wine corks to the braise (don’t worry, corks are removed before service). It’s a technique he learned from a Japanese chef. He says that there is a chemical reaction that is highly beneficial to the texture.
Japanese cuisine uses octopus, tako, in sushi and takoyaki (fried or grilled). Fournier uses his braised-then-grilled octopus in a beautiful dish with fingerling potatoes and colorful bell peppers napped with Meyer lemon vinaigrette. A garnish of roasted-crisp slices of Spanish-style chorizo adds welcome texture contrast and spiciness.
Greg Daniels, Costa Mesa
It is the itty bitty ones that Greg Daniels, Executive Chef-Partner at Taco Asylum has mastered. Weighing in at only a few ounces, Daniels gently simmers petite IQF (individually quick frozen) octopuses for 1 1/2 hours in red wine augmented with aromatics: garlic, bay leaf and whole peppercorns.
Made tender by the braise, the babies bathe for several hours in a refrigerated marinade made of extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic and oregano. Quickly heated on a flattop grill to make the exterior a little crisp and attain a hint of char, they are served in tacos, wrapped with house-made tortillas and teamed with kalamata olives, feta cheese, tomatoes and oregano. One of Taco Asylum’s many hot sauces is optional.
Renieri “Ren” Caceres, Fashion Island, Newport Beach
Rustica’s Executive Chef, Renieri Caseres, says that his restaurant doesn’t use frozen products, with the exception of the frozen, farm-raised baby octopuses that he uses. He braises them, thawed, in a court-bouillon spiked with fresh lime, carrots, leeks, celery, onion, thyme and bay leaf. The simmer is short, but more cooking takes place after the seafood is marinated.
“(At this point) they are tender but a little on the raw side,” he explained. “They go into a marinade of grapeseed oil, thyme, garlic, lemon peel, then marinate for 1 to 2 days in refrigerator, covered.
“Out of container, the excess marinade is removed and we grill them to char a little. Two things to happen, they finish cooking and the char adds a nice smokiness.”
Off the grill, they are tossed with lemon oil, chili flakes, salt, pepper and parsley. They are served atop a smear of oh-so luscious Saffron Potato Aioli.
Yianni Koufodontis, Huntington Beach and Brea
Olive Pit, the Mediterranean-focused grills owned by Chef Yianni Koufodontis, serve octopus as a special, offering it when his Greece-sourced octopuses are available, about 80 percent of the time. Koufodontis, whose culinary experience includes work experience at The French Laundry, Spago and Troquet, calls his cuisine “real food.”
He says that food doesn’t need 100 hands touching it. Instead he relies on the freshest quality ingredients and straight-forward approaches. Born in Long Beach to Greece-born parents, he recalls snorkeling for octopus on childhood summer vacations in Greece. They would beat the octopus catch against rocks to tenderize it.
“I have a specific octopus that is coming in just for me from a family friend in Greece,” he explains, adding that it is individually quick frozen. “It’s a unique product that we use here.”
Usually between 2 and 4 pounds, he braises his special Greek-bred octopuses for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours in a mixture of white wine with fresh dill, parsley, thyme and shallots, then grills them to order. They are cut into bite-sized pieces and served warm topped with lemon-boosted vinaigrette. The dressing is 1 1/2 parts Greek olive oil to 1 part fresh lemon juice, plus salt and pepper.
My mouth is watering.
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This recipe from Executive Chef Yves Fournier, Andrei’s in Irvine, has a lot of ingredients and several steps. You can simplify it for home use by preparing the octopus, marinade and vinaigrette a day ahead. Marinate the braised-and-cooled octopus overnight in the refrigerator, then grill it just before serving. Serve it with the vinaigrette, omitting v
Andrei’s Octopus with Bell Peppers, Fingerling Potatoes, Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette and Crispy Chorizo
Yield: 12 to 14 servings
5 pound Mediterranean whole octopus
2 medium-size yellow onions, chopped
1 leek, roots trimmed, dark green stalks intact
1/2 bunch celery, leaves reserved, stalks chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
1 head of garlic broken into cloves, unpeeled
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried red chili flakes
1 lemon, quartered
10 leaves fresh basil
2 cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 wine corks
1 tablespoon fennel tops, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon coriander seed, toasted and crushed
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Meyer lemon, zested and juiced
Chorizo chips: 24 to 30 thin slices chorizo, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Minced zest and juice of 3 lemons, Meyer lemons preferred
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and white pepper to taste
4 pounds fingerling potatoes
3 quarts vegetable stock
2 red bell peppers, seeded, cored, diced
2 yellow bell peppers, seeded, cored, diced
3 green onions, trimmed, cut into narrow diagonal slices
4 ounces fresh basil, cut into narrow crosswise slices
1 bunch cilantro
To finish octopus: 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 5 cloves crushed garlic
Cook’s notes: Use fully cooked, cured Spanish-style chorizo, not the uncooked Mexican-style chorizo.
1. Rinse octopus with cold water. In a large ovenproof pot, bring all court-bouillon ingredients (except corks) to a boil on high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 1 hour.
2. Preheat oven to 270 degrees. Chef prefers cooking octopus in the oven, but says that home cooks can use the stovetop if their oven can’t accommodate the large pot. Add corks and octopus to court-bouillon; bring to simmer and cover, either with lid or aluminum foil. Place in preheated oven 70 to 80 minutes. Check with the tip of a knife to see if the octopus is tender. Remove octopus from the liquid and cool. Discard the court-bouillon.
3. Prepare marinade: stir all marinade ingredients together in a medium bowl. Cut legs off the octopus; discard body/head. Toss legs in the marinade, cover and rest for one hour or refrigerate overnight.
4. Prepare chorizo chips: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place slices in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Bake about 7 minutes, or until crisp. Set aside but keep warm.
5. Prepare vinaigrette: In a blender, combine shallots, mustard, lemon zest and juice. Whirl until smooth. With motor running, add oil in a thin stream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Cook potatoes in simmering vegetable stock until fork tender. Cut into 1-inch crosswise pieces.
7. Prep all accompaniments and set next to work area.
8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large deep nonstick skillet on medium heat; add octopus and cook until lightly browned. Put octopus in roasting pan and place in oven. Using same skillet, cook fingerling potatoes and garlic in remaining oil until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add in bell peppers, salt and pepper and cook over medium for about 5 minutes. Add green onions and basil; cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle in paprika, cayenne and cumin. Slice each octopus leg on an angle into bite size pieces and add to potato mixture. Toss well. Arrange vegetables and octopus in warm serving dishes, drizzle with vinaigrette. Garnish with chorizo chips, fresh sprigs of cilantro and celery leaves.
Source: Yves Fournier, Executive Chef, Andrei’s, Irvine
Greek-Style Marinated Octopus with Vinegar and Red Onions
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup white wine vinegar
8 black peppercorns plus 4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coarse salt, such as kosher or sea salt
1 whole (1 1/2-pounds) octopus, cleaned, see cook’s notes
5 tablespoons sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground sumac, see cook’s notes
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups red onion cut into matchsticks (julienne)
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 romaine lettuce leaves, cut crosswise into narrow strips (chiffonade)
Cook’s notes: The eight legs and body are edible, but the eyes, mouth portion and viscera are not. In this recipe only the legs are used. Ground sumac is made from dark dried berries; it is sold in Middle Eastern markets and some natural food stores. It has an appealing tartness and fruit-like astringency.
1. Braise octopus: Combine 1 gallon water and vinegar in large pot over high heat. Cut lemon in half crosswise and squeeze juice into pot; add rinds, peppercorns, bay leaves and salt. Stir to combine. Bring to boil; lower heat to maintain a simmer for 10 minutes. Using tongs or wearing thick rubber gloves and holding the octopus by the head, dunk the body into simmering water 3 times, leaving it submerged for about 5 seconds each time. This is called “scaring” the octopus because the legs will curl up as you plunge it in. Drop octopus into simmering water after the final dunking and bring to boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until tender. Remove from heat, drain well and set aside to cool. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.
2. Combine vinegars with sugar, sumac, and pinch of salt in nonreactive mixing bowl, whisking until sugar dissolves. Add onion and toss to coat. Sprinkle with a bit of salt to help pull the moisture from the onion. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Then refrigerate for at least 2 but preferably 6 hours.
3. Cut head off braised and cooled octopus. Cut each leg into 8 pieces. Slice each piece crosswise into thin pieces. Add octopus slices to marinated red onion mixture. Cover and marinate for 1 hour. Add oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Fold in romaine just before serving. Place on serving platter or place equal portions on each small plates and serve immediately.
Source: “The New Greek Cuisine” by Jim Botsacos (Broadway Books, $29.95)