Octopus for Octopus

Round plate

The other day, someone asked me about my career “obiettivo” – objective.  The truth is, I have no idea.  I’m a bit like an octopus with arms flailing into different pots.  An arm for catering, another for cooking classes/events, a third for blogging.  Let’s assign an arm to each of my three children.  Arm #7 is dedicated to my mind’s constantly spinning wheels, furiously plotting and devising my next project or idea.  And that poor eighth arm is relegated to managing the chaos of day-to-day life.

I’m no different than millions of other multitaskers out there except for the fact that when I feel like a flailing octopus, my response is to cook octopus – literally.  More specifically, tagliolini al nero di seppia con sugo di polpo e calamari – fresh squid ink pasta with a slow-cooked sauce of octopus and calamari.  Since one of my catering clients requested this dish for her Christmas Eve party, my cephalopod epiphany was quite timely.

If you’ve never cooked octopus, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Buying:  When I went to my fishmonger, I had the choice of fresh octopus from Greece and previously frozen octopus from Morocco.  They talked me into the buying the fresh one (probably because it cost more per pound), but in retrospect I would have selected the previously frozen octipus since  the freezing process tenderizes octopus meat, which can be quite tough when freshly caught.

Octopus raw

Cleaning:  Cleaning octopus is a chore, but here in the US, you hardly ever see uncleaned octopus sold in a store.  All frozen octopus is cleaned before freezing.  If  you happen upon fresh octopus that is uncleaned when you buy it, ask the fishmonger to do it for you – it’s worth the extra couple of dollars.  However, even if you purchase a cleaned octopus, you may still need to remove the pair of “beaks”  from the bottom of the center cavity (apply pressure with your thumbs as if you’re pushing them out) and, if cooking the octopus whole, remove the eyes.  If you’re braising octopus chunks like I do in this “sugo” recipe, simply cut off and discard the head and cut the tentacles into one-inch chunks.

Skinning: Many recipes –  and certainly some discerning chefs – would encourage you to remove the octopus’s purple skin.  However, I urge you to leave it on.  First of all, it’s a total pain-in-the-butt to remove.  Second, and more importantly,  the skin imparts a  slightly gelatinous quality that is quite pleasing.  And when you’re using the octopus for a sauce, the skin gives the sauce a rich, unctuous texture.

Octopus pieces

Cooking: There are no hard and fast rules for timing, but you should allow for an hour.  Although size matters as far as length of cooking, testing octopus for doneness is the only way to know whether it is properly cooked and tender.  If you cook an octopus whole, check it with the sharp point of a thin-bladed knife; when it meets little resistance, the octopus is done.  If you cook it in chunks, taste it to make sure it’s tender.  Do not overcook or it will begin to dry out and toughen again.

Curiosity: Whenever I cook octopus, I use a trick that I read in a Mario Batali cookbook years ago – I add a clean, non-synthetic wine cork to the  braising liquid.  The cork, for some mysterious reason, tenderizes the octopus during cooking.

Side view

Tagliolini al Nero di Seppia con Sugo di Polpo e Calamari

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©

In addition to octopus, I add squid to the sauce. Another Batali trick I learned years ago is that calamari should be cooked for either one minute or one hour.  Anything more or less, and you have rubber.  Squid ink pasta, with its slightly briny flavor and dramatic color, pairs perfectly for this boldly flavored, slow-cooked seafood sauce. I’ll post the recipe for the fresh version in the coming days, but most good Italian specialty stores carry imported dried squid ink pasta.

  • 1 pound cleaned octopus, head and beaks removed
  • 1 pound cleaned squid, both bodies and tentacles
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon (or more) hot crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 cups canned peeled tomatoes, well-crushed, either by hand or in the food processor or blender
  • 1 pound fresh or dried squid ink pasta
  • 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

Rinse the octopus and squid and pat dry.  Cut the octopus’s tentacles into one-inch chunks and cut the bodies of the squid into 1-inch rings.  Set aside.

To a wide heavy-bottomed saute pan or Dutch oven, add the olive oil and set over medium heat until shimmering.  Add the onion, garlic, celery and red pepper flakes, season with 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of black pepper and cook for about 6-8 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft.

Add the octopus and squid and a pinch of salt and pepper and raise the heat to high, stirring often.  The seafood will release a purple-ish liquid.  Once that liquid has evaporated, add the white wine and bay leaves and simmer until it is reduced by half.  Add the tomatoes (rinse the bowl containing the tomatoes with some hot water and add it to the pot as well) and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and allow the sauce to cook for about 45-60 minutes, stirring every so often to prevent sticking.

Taste the octopus and squid after it’s been stewing for a while so you can judge cooking time – both should be fork-tender and not at all tough or chewy.   You will likely need to add a cup of hot water every so often to keep the sauce from becoming too thick. When the seafood is tender, turn down the heat to low and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta according to package instructions minus one minute.  Drain the pasta, reserving a half cup of the pasta cooking water, and add the pasta and cooking water to the saute pan with the finished sugo.  Using tongs, toss the pasta with the sauce and let simmer together for about one minute.  Turn off the heat, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley.  Serve immediately.

Buon appetito!

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One Response to %2$s

  1. Antonette December 15, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    Michelle, my secret of getting a tender octopus…I cook the octopus in a sauce pot with 2 tablspoons of extra virgin olive oil covered on medium heat for about one hour and the octopus will give out its own juices to cook in…comes out really tender!! Great recipe..I cook my sauce in a heavy cast iron skillet with the octopus and then when ready to serve put under the broiler for about 5 min and pour it over my pasta..I will definitely try your version!!

  2. Ciao Chow Linda December 15, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    Michelle – I thought I had left a comment, but obviously doing it on an iPhone can be tricky –
    especially when you’re out of town. But like the commenter Antonette, I put the octopus in a pot with no other liquid – not even olive oil. It releases so much of its own water that it doesn’t need it . I’ve always cooked it and used it in salads, but I’d love to try your version with squid ink pasta.

    • Majella Home Cooking December 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      Thanks for the tip, ladies! I presume the reason the sauce takes on such a prominent seafood flavor is all of the liquid released from the octopus. I’m excited to try it your way!

  3. Frank @Memorie di Angelina December 27, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    I adore octopus. Too bad it’s such a “controversial” food. I usually get frozen baby octopus, which is relatively easy to find and actually quite tender as compared with the adult.

  4. Helen January 3, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    I missed this post in the throes of exams and xmas. I cooked octopus for the first time in October and I sure wish I had access to these tips all in one place. Gonna throw one of those suckers on the grill one of these days. BTW, I’ll never be able to look at you again without seeing 8 arms.

  5. Don Zampa January 7, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

    I LOVE calamari prepared this way, Michelle! Sounds very similar to the way my nonna made hers (Abruzzese also, from Ortucchio) and we are always on the lookout for a restaurant in the SF Bay Area that offers THIS instead of the ‘breaded and fried” style. It is seldom that we succeed but recently I found it at La Ciccia in San Francisco. Grazie

    • Majella Home Cooking January 7, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      Ciao Don, Thanks for stopping by my site. I, too, love the briny, deep sea flavor of slow-cooked calamari and octopus. I’ve never heard of Ortucchio – I’ll have to check the map! A presto! Michelle

  6. Paul Jerome January 8, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    My daughter (born in Vicenza) just sent me your wonderful blog site which I have immediately shared with my immediate family and friends (21 of them).
    I became hooked on calamari while living with my Nonna (Pescocostanzo,Abruzzo, Italia) and also Octopus while living in Padova,Italy. Although I am not a fan of pasta made with seppia ink, I love anything made with either Calamari or Polipo.
    Thank you for making your thoughts,tips and cooking skills available (along with the comments of your followers.
    a piu tardi, pj (DiGeronimo)

    • Majella Home Cooking January 8, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

      Ciao PJ, Thank you for your kind words. I love calamari and octopus as well – the squid ink pasta that I made was actually pretty mild in taste. I really think the effect was in the color and presentation. I’ve had pasta with a squid ink sauce in Venezia – the flavor was a lot stronger and more pungent than simply infusing the pasta dough with the ink. I hope you’ll stop by again! A presto, Michelle

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