After my two-hour lecture at the Globe theatre and my mind still half-settled in 16th century London I wandered into Borough market. It was raining and I had a couple of hours to kill before my next seminar. I looked in on a new gyoza stall, bought some peaches, avocados and went in search of a fishmonger. And that’s when I saw it. Lying under a dangling puffer-fish with it’s legs sprawled over a bed of ice, a huge purple octopus. Naturally I had to inquire. How much was it, what was it’s name.. I mean where did it come from? Apparently this particular one was frozen and defrosted from the mediterranean. There was also a cheaper pure white version, fresh off the Cornish coast. He held it up for me to inspect- compared to its purple cousin it was a positive baby.
He offered to remove the eyes. Delightful. And altogether make it more manageable for me to handle. Marvellous. And how do you cook an octopus? Parboil for 10 minutes, pat dry and flash fry apparently. Is it possible to skip the first stage and just flash fry? Nope, not unless you want to be eating old shoes, they said smilingly. Well at £3.80 it would at least be the cheapest shoe I ever cooked.
In the evening, my friend cancelled and my flatmate was on her way out for a cocktail. So it was just me and the 8-legged one then. The only octopus I had ever had was raw on sushi and another time as part of a seafood salad on the coast of Puglia. However I have eaten a lot of squid, fish and even cuttlefish before, and based on what I knew about cooking them, I charted a course to an experimental octopus three-ways.
Firstly I portioned the octopus, into manageable pieces of roughly the same size. I scored the flat pieces like squid. The upper tentacle I sliced as thinly as I could with the knife I had. To this I added similarly thin slices of fennel, lemon juice and my very best quality olive oil (Zucca: £18 a bottle).
Improvements: Add diced tomato and a dash of sugar for sweetness and some herbs (basil?) for added taste.
Studiously I parboiled most of the rest for ten minutes in salt water, patted dry and flash fried in a wok. Mum usually adds sichuan peppercorns and ginger to fishy dishes, I had no ginger so I put the sichuan peppercorns into the hot oil first. I also like squid with chilli and garlic salt but I didn’t want it to burn so after putting the octopus in I added a little bit of red and green chilli pepper, flaky salt and garlic.
Improvements: This ended up on the chewy side so I decided boiling for 10 minutes first was too long. Perhaps try a dash of Shaoxing wine towards the end?
Notes: The longer you cook octopus, the more purple it becomes. The sinewy parts become particularly dark. The acid of the lemon cooked it but kept the white colour.
With the rest I had a go at merely dipping in hot water for less than a minute before flash frying with some fennel. This was less chewy. In future, I’d like to try cooking octopus slowly over a long period of time in a stew to break down the collagen.
Before going out, my flatmate mentioned she had read somewhere that octopus stock was the most delicious in the world, and therefore perfect in a risotto. All the time I had been cooking, the delicious aroma of mum’s dried cuttlefish and rib soup had been building in my kitchen. The salt water I had boiled the octopus in had turned a pinkish purple- I tasted it. It was essentially my mum’s cuttlefish soup. And therefore one of the most nostalgic, moreish and comforting foods to me in the whole world. Instead of dried cuttlefish I had a new ingredient to rave about.
I used to have cuttlefish soup with a scoop of cooked rice, and my friend had mentioned a risotto so I added some Thai rice to the water to cook. Unfortunately the water had already been over-salted as I hadn’t planned to cook with it but the resulting congee, with a drizzle of olive oil resulted in an odd blend of East and West that triggered enough memories to make the whole experiment worthwhile.
In future I think I will try and perfect an octopus stew- with more time, and a little less chewiness. As it happened I polished off the entire thing and headed out to join my flatmate for a cocktail. A very quick and satisfying supper before the night really began.