A Quick Guide to Octopus
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 octopus 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.