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.
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.
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.
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.