“I don’t really like seafood salads” said R. She is the new-ish girlfriend of our old friend O. and we are just getting to know her. Until now I thought she would eat everything.
We had invited a couple of friends for dinner, to digest (no pun intended!) the impressions from our latest trip, Madrid this time, as we often do. We buy some delicatessen during our trip, we let ourselves get inspired by dishes we eat, and create a semi-homemade dinner for our friends when we are back. A glimpse of the country or region we visited for those who stayed at home, if you will.
The dish in question was an octopus salad. Widely found all over the Mediterranean countries, I grew up eating one or the other version of this, but had never attempted to make it myself up until about three months ago. Since the Tuesday I saw a nice octopus sitting in the fish crate at our Spanish corner shop, and gave myself a heave ho, I have been making this salad regularly. This was the first public tasting it was getting.
“Octopi are so slimy, I don’t know, they have a weird taste” went R. on. “I have tried it so many times where it was supposed to be good, but never really liked it. Of course I will try yours, but just don’t be disappointed if I don’t like it. It is just me.” I love people who are willing to try things. You don’t have to like everything, but you should try everything at least once, I believe. Unless it is obviously bad for you*. So I told R. no problem, she doesn’t have to eat it if she already knows she doesn’t like it. But R. is a nice woman. And she still wants to make a good impression on the oldest friends of her boyfriend whom she is madly in love with.
I turned to answer questions from other guests (“Cabrales cheese with orange marmalade, on toast? That is perverse, hand it over”) and watched from the corner of my eye how R. helped herself to a serving-spoonful of the octopus salad. She immediately and secretly transferred most of it to O.’s plate and kept only a little piece for herself. As she unwillingly ate it, I watched her eyes grow. She reached for the serving spoon again and took some more, this time only for herself. After she ate up that mound, she took the serving plate full of the octopus salad, brought it closer and while she was heaping yet more of it on her plate she said: “I really don’t like octopus salad. I don’t. But this is so good, I have to eat it.”
Selected bits and snaps of conversations of the evening: “This morcilla thing is so light and airy and crisp, just yummy. – That is a special blood sausage from the Asturias region. – But I don’t eat blood sausage!” “I hate fennel. – There is fennel in the octopus salad you have been gobbling up. – Oh, didn’t realize!” “Chorizo with horseradish sauce? I don’t think that would go well. – Later: Have more of that sauce?”
I love dinner guests with strong opinions. I don’t try to change their minds, but isn’t it the best compliment when they do?
serves 8 as a salad
prep: 15 mins
cook: ca. 1 1/4 hours unattended
octopus, thawed from frozen*, 1 (ca 1300g)
fennel, 1 bulb (you can substitute 3-4 celery stalks)
flat leaf parsley, a small bunch (you can substitute the celery leaves on the stalks)
olive oil, 5 tbsp (light and fruity sort)
black pepper, freshly ground
Put the octopus, head down, tentacles above, in a large enough pot with a matching lid. Place the pot on a stove with the lowest heat setting possible. Do not add any water! The octopus will release a deep red juice pretty soon and that will be enough. Let cook for around 1 1/4 hours (never under an hour, bigger examples may need up to 1 3/4 hours). Try not to open the lid before at least an hour is over. You can check for doneness (again, don’t do this too early) with a knife, insert it where a tentacle joins the head. It should be very easy and feel like cutting through butter. When done, remove from the pot and let cool till you can handle it. Discard the juice in the pot.
Chop the octopus in bite-size chunks. Begin with the tentacles, avoid the middle part underneath the head, where the tentacles come together and a spike sits in a little hole. Chop up the head as well. Cut/slice the fennel in somewhat smaller pieces. Finely hack the parsley. Mix octopus, fennel, parsley, the juice of the lemon, olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Let sit in the fridge for at least an hour. Adjust taste right before serving (more lemon juice might be necessary).
*Yes, frozen. One of the rare cases where frozen is better than fresh. First of all, you are probably already getting thawed ones at your fishmonger’s anyways (the season for octopus is really short and a big part of the production/catch is frozen), second of all (most importantly), freezing destroys the cell structure of the octopus, thus tenderizing it. The secret to tender octopus is freezing it first. As you do not want to re-freeze an already thawed one, you really have to ask your fishmonger, making sure he understands you really do prefer it to be thawed as opposed to fresh, otherwise he will keep on telling you it is fresh, although it probably isn’t.
* I eat almost anything, but I have to admit I haven’t been able to make myself try two specific food stuffs during our trip across southeast Asia last year: Roasted cockroaches in Cambodia and rats in Laos. People are eating them, so obviously they are not that bad for you, but I try to get away with the argument that these are not commonly (ie in the western world) accepted edibles. For more adventerous eaters, visit Deep End Dining and watch this video of eating live octopus tentacles