Friday, 12 November 2010

Octopus stew

I know some people are funny about squid, and even more so about octopus, and frankly I’m not going to bust too much of a gut to persuade them they’re wrong.  Which they are. But as long as they’re not eating squid or octopus, in this world of threatened fisheries, it just leaves more for me to eat, with a clearer conscience.  Because I do like a cephalopod, me…

I realize that octopus may not be readily available where you’re reading this, but I’m lucky enough to live near a thriving multi ethnic market at Ridley Road, Dalston, and octopus is always readily available, and cheap as, if not chips, then very much the cheapest fish.  The two octopi pictured cost me less than four quid. And I don’t want to come over all metropolitan elitist, because I know you can get octopus outside London – I couldn’t resist doing the dish below for a group of friends when we were way out in the Cambridgeshire countryside, and I came across octopus on the fish counter at Morrisons in Cambourne.  Which apart from being in the middle of nowhere, is one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been to, a faux olde worlde new town, with meandering streets, a 19 mph speed limit, and the distinct if unsupportable feeling about it that all its inhabitants might well be there under a witness relocation program (please, residents of Cambourne, feel free to contact me via the blog to confirm or deny that you are on a witness relocation program, or that living there is like being trapped in an Ira Levin or JG Ballard novel…).  Anyway, that’s by the by – the point is, if you can get octopus in Cambourne, you can surely get it most places (and the fish counter at Morrisons is probably, generally, a better bet than you’d think…).  Even if you can’t, you can surely get squid, and that is perfectly happily substitutable in the recipe below, although probably a little pricier.

I always like to gut and clean an octopus myself, although your fishmonger will always do it for you, and the young lad on the counter at Morrisons was so eagerly excited to show off his (I’m guessing newly acquired) skill that it seemed mean not to let him.  I can see why some people might get a bit squeamish about it, but it really is dead easy.  remove the head portion, cutting it through just below and above the eyes, leaving the tentacles held together by a solid ring of flesh a centimeter or two thick, and the bulbous, balloon like body sac.  Poke your fingers inside the body sac, flip it inside out and pull away the inner sac that neatly contains all the octopus innards, pull or cut away any fibrous membrane, flip the body sac back outside in, push any remains of the beak out of the hole in the centre of the tentacles, rinse it all off and you’re done in about 30-45 seconds per octopus, taking it nice and easy.

I score the flesh of the body sac in a criss-cross pattern, although that’s probably not really necessary with small octopi, then cut into 3 or 4 large pieces.  Cut off each tentacle whole, or cut 2 or 3 cm chunks off the thick ends of them if they seem too cumbersome, and divide the ring of flesh that held them all together neatly into segments, put it all in a bowl, with salt, pepper, zest and juice of a lemon, some parsley and dill, as I've used here, or fresh thyme, finely sliced garlic and chilli, and a good coating of olive oil. Leave it to marinade a while.  A couple of hours is good if you can, the acid in the lemon juice will help to tenderize the flesh.  A lot of people worry that octopus, or squid, is inherently tough and rubbery, but I’ve never found that to be a problem, not with the little ones we tend to have for sale in this country at least.  I have heard that the secret of tender octopus is freezing it, making it about the only thing you are looking to hear “yes” for when you ask your fishmonger ‘has it been frozen’. I can’t personally vouch for the soundness of that advice, but it makes sense, and appears to be supported by Skye Gyngell at least.

2 small octopi
½ red pepper
½ bulb fennel
2 biggish potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm dice
1 ½ large tomatoes, skinned and deseeded
1 red onion
½ glass white wine
250 ml fish stock
garlic, chilli, olive oil

Once it’s marinaded an hour or two, gently fry the octopus for a minute or two, till it becomes more opaque and you’re starting to see a nice white and pink colour contrast, then add the onion, fennel and red pepper to the pan.  Let those soften, then add the potatoes, the tomato and the wine.  Bring that to a vigorous simmer and let it thicken a little before adding the fish stock, then cover the pan and let it simmer away gently for about a half hour to forty minutes, or until the potatoes are tender enough to just start breaking up when jabbed with a fork. By then the otopus should be beautifully tender too.  Finish with a sprinkling of freshly cut herbs, dill, parsley, coriander or basil.  Or any combination thereof.

As I say, you can readily substitute squid for the octopus.  If you do, I find that the squid – or the same is true if using very small, young octopi – needs less cooking time than the potatoes, to reach the perfect tenderness.  You can get round that in one of two ways: if you’re using pre made fish stock out of the fridge, par boil the potatoes in the stock as you heat it up in a separate pan, then add both together at the same stage above where you add the stock.  This is actually the quickest, and in many ways easiest way to do it.  Or, if you’re making up some fresh stock specifically, then follow the instructions above, BUT, remove the squid/young octopi from the pan before putting in the onion, fennel and peppers, and add them back in for the final 10 minutes or so.

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