Octopus has finally gone mainstream, but while we may be gobbling it up like never before at restaurants, we have yet to collectively embrace the possibilities of octopus in our kitchens. Chicken — now that is a doable thing. Octopus, gelatinous and leggy, seems daunting. That perception, however, is our national mistake, because in addition to being delicious and surprisingly versatile, octopus is also easy to make home, says Andrea Lynn, the author of Queens: A Culinary Passport: Exploring Ethnic Cuisine in New York City's Most Diverse Borough. And she would know — the borough's menus are swimming with it.
But while different cuisines require different cooking methods, a huge number of octopus preparations begin with some variation of this: obtain octopus, prep octopus, simmer octopus.
Get Your Octopus
You can get your octopus fresh or frozen. If you come across frozen, embrace it — octopus is the rare occasion where frozen might actually be better, at least, according to food science writer Harold McGee, who points out that the freezing process acts as a tenderizer. Most of the octopus I could source, though, was fresh, and that is also more than fine. If you're having trouble finding any octopus at all, try calling your local fish market — even if they don’t stock it regularly, they may be able order it for you.
Prep Your Octopus
Assuming you're getting your octopus from a fishmonger and not directly from the ocean, it will most likely be cleaned when it arrives. You will, however, need to slice off the head yourself (use a knife or kitchen shears), and you may need to remove the beak. The beak gets a lot of buzz — it is as bird-like and generally beak-y as it sounds — but Lynn is not concerned. If it's there, and she assures me it probably won’t be, you can just slice around it and pop it out. (Should you get stuck and/or have an afternoon to kill, there are multiple YouTube tutorials on this topic.) Then, just cut the tentacles into a few pieces. Note that smaller pieces cook faster, though faster is a relative term: "It still takes 2 to 3 hours for these smaller pieces to get tender," Lynn says, so plan your life accordingly.
Cook Your Octopus
People have a lot of opinions about the best way to boil your octopus to get it maximally tender and minimally rubbery. Vinegar! Salt water! Add two wine corks to the cooking water! Beat it against rocks! Beat it with a daikon radish! But Lynn promises none of that is actually necessary for excellent results. "The main key," she advises, "is patience — slowly cooking it until it’s tender." All you actually have to do is heat up a pot of water, put your octopus in it, and wait.
From there, you can go in any number of directions (sear it, grill it, serve it over pasta), but replicating the legendary octopus at Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna is a pretty good place to start. It’s a simple recipe, and also, it’s one of the best. When they do it at Gregory’s, the result is "The most tender, tasty octopus in New York City, for sure."
Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna Grilled or Broiled Octopus
(From Queens: A Culinary Passport, adapted from Frideriki Bletsas)
- 1 (4- to 5-pound) octopus, cleaned
- 4 to 5 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 lemon, halved
- 3½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large tomatoes, sliced
- 2 large cucumbers, peeled (optional) and sliced
- ½ tablespoon red wine vinegar, as needed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
- Using either a knife or kitchen shears, remove each tentacle from the octopus head. Discard the head, and cut the tentacles into a few pieces.
- Add octopus to a large Dutch oven or a heavy-duty large pot, and cover with water and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat.
- Cover, and reduce to medium-low to low heat so liquid is simmering. Let octopus cook for 2 to 3 hours until very tender. (To check, remove an octopus tentacle and cut it with a knife.)
- Remove octopus tentacles from liquid, transfer to a container, and drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over it. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- When ready to serve, add tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion. Drizzle with vinegar, remaining 1½ tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing to combine.
- Cut octopus tentacles into pieces, and grill until slightly charred (just a few minutes per side). If you don’t have a grill, warm a large nonstick sauté pan over high heat with ½ tablespoon olive oil and sauté until octopus is warmed and slightly charred, a few minutes per side.
- Divide salad between the plates and top with octopus. Serve.