The girl with the octopus
So, how do you cook an octopus? Hot and fast? Low and slow? Cork, no cork? Whatever you do, remove the beak and curl the legs. Watch them coil and curl — retreating into themselves as if touching the scalding hot water breathes life and colour back into their body one more time.
Have you ever hovered near an octopus den and seen one glowing eye stare you down? The mound of clean, picked-over seashells was your first clue that you are not alone on the reef. Have you seen her wobble across the ocean floor, like a waddling old lady dressed in a multicolour skirt that billows around her as the current propels her forward? Better yet, have you hunted an octopus, or witnessed an octopus be hunted? One minute draped over a rock and the next, shapeshifting into a torpedo as it inks and darts away, painting its predator in the cloud. At night, they glow — little neon rainbows scuttling in the pitch blackness, intrigued by the light of your flashlight. Mesmerizing to watch, versatile and controversial to cook, let alone eat. That thing, that beautiful thing. How the hell are we going to cook it properly.
Do you know what you’re doing trying to cook that thing? He was referring to the octopus that we had just ordered from the high school-aged fishmonger working behind the grocery store’s seafood counter. I could have been mistaken, but from the condescending tone in which the man posed the question, he was sceptical about our ability to tackle cooking this thing. Regardless, he’d coined us as amateurs and clearly disapproved of what would become a significant milestone and symbol in my then relationship.
What a disrespectful way to describe one of the most beautiful things to chase under the sea. What was once a majestic mystery had had her colour washed away and now weighed a mere 6lbs, most of which is water weight that will evaporate in the cooking process.
She laid there, sprawled out on a bed of crushed ice tangled up in the other molluscs. The boy slid the door open, reached in and cradled her deflated bulbous head. Her lifeless legs dangled as he removed her from the refrigerator. The tips of her tentacles tickled the bed of oysters, mussels and scallops below before he carelessly plopped her into a pathetic plastic bag. She was cold and pale, translucent like a ghost — no longer were her super-sensor riddled feelers a vibrant purple. He folded the packing paper around her and sealed it with a barcode sticker. That thing, that beautiful thing. How the hell are we going to cook this properly, I muttered under my breath.
I think back now and find it odd that he didn’t follow up his unsolicited comment with unsolicited advice. Maybe he was genuinely looking for clues on our chosen method, or maybe he was proposing a challenge. Challenge accepted. That snide comment has set me on conquest: four years, six octopus, and a range of cooking methods later, this is officially an experiment, a quest to consistently achieve charred octopus with gnarly tentacles and a soft, but firm flesh.
How to cook an octopus
Tenderize it. Marinate it — but don’t marinate it too long. Too much acid will disintegrate the suckers and those are your best chance at charred, blackened, crispy bits. Don’t boil it, it will dilute the octopus flavour, but let it simmer in wine and water, with lemon halves, a wine cork and peppercorns, just for the aesthetic. Whatever you do, curl the tips. Watch them as they act all coy and coil up retreating into themselves as the colour seeps back into their legs and body. Almost as if you’d dipped then in a pot of boiling ink and breathed life back into it one more time. Bake it. Baste it in its gelatinous juices after cooking it low and slow, and then fast char it on a hissing hot iron pan.
Tell me, how do you cook yours? Hot and fast? Low and slow? Cork, no cork?
I am ready to declare this as my lifelong feat. How to cook an octopus? How to eat an octopus? This is far from over.
Signed, the girl with the octopus est. 2016