Octopus can be delicious and tender. If you don’t believe me, please try this recipe. Many restaurants grill octopus, which gives it a dense meaty, and sometimes rubbery texture. In this classic Spanish recipe, the octopus is boiled, which yields a delicate, succulent meat that resembles the tender interior of a perfectly cooked scallop (the husband just compared it to a soft gummy bear, ha!). This simple dish was a huge hit at a dinner party we hosted last weekend.
Pulpo a la Gallega, or pulpo a feira as it is also known, is one of the most famous dishes from Galicia, Spain. This preparation is simply boiled octopus served with boiled potatoes, smothered in olive oil and dusted with Spanish paprika and sea salt. It is served, always on a wooden platter, at restaurants and dinner tables throughout Spain, at festivals, tapas bars, and establishments called pulperias which specialize in this dish. It is so easy to make and nearly impossible to screw up. You can do it.
The trick is finding a large octopus, at least four to six pounds, with nice thick tentacles. These yeild satisfying coins of meat that hold up nicely to chunks of potato. Smaller ones are more readily available, at least in Los Angeles, but they don’t produce much meat since only the tentacles are eaten. They also cook rather quickly. If little guys are all you can find, that’s fine, just keep an eye on them so they don’t overcook and become tough.
Octopus spoils very quickly, so buying it frozen is the way to go. It is cleaned and frozen immediately after capture on the fishing vessel at peak freshness. Freezing actually helps to tenderize the meat. My husband took an early morning field trip to International Marine, a downtown L.A. commercial seafood market, to find the larger specimens that are preferable for this recipe. Asian markets are probably also a good source. Whole Foods sells previously frozen octopus, which has been thawed and sits in their seafood case for an uncertain amount of time. Gross. If this is your only option for buying octopus, ask the seafood clerk for one that is still frozen.
Thaw the octopus and rinse out the head cavity. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it until it tastes like the ocean. A copper kettle is traditional, but if you don’t have one, and who does?, add copper pennies to the pot and pretend it will have the same effect. Add a couple of peppercorns and a bay leaf if you want to be fancy. Some recipes will say to beat the octopus against the countertop or throw it violently into the sink a few times to tenderize it. This is messy and leaves octopus slime all over the kitchen. The Galician method for tenderizing octopus is much tidier. Simply grasp the head of the octopus and dunk it into boiling water once, twice, three times, then release it into the water. Cook for about 45 minutes (a smaller octopus might be ready in as little as 20 minutes). The octopus is done when a knife or skewer easily pierces the thickest part of the tentacles near the head, just like testing the doneness of potatoes.
Remove the octopus from the water and set aside. Peel and boil waxy potatoes in the same cooking water, or use fresh water, it’s up to you. When the potaoes are done, give the octopus one more quick bath in the hot water to bring it back to temperature. Grasping the head with tongs, use kitchen scissors to cut the tentacles into about half-inch coins. Serve the octopus and potatoes with a generous dousing of olive oil, and dust the top with Spanish paprika and sea salt crystals. Tear off a hunk of bread for dredging through the oil and crack open a bottle of ice-cold Albariño or Ribeiro wine. It is so good, it will blow your mind.