Embrace the Octopus

Charred octopus salad

Charred octopus salad

It's no secret that I'm a pretty daring eater, which is a complete turnaround from my childhood. When I was younger my parent's couldn't even pay me to try things like clams, mussels, liver, or sweetbreads. My idea of seafood was fish fingers or well-cooked salmon, full-stop. About the only adventurous thing I ate as a child was fried calamari. I couldn't get enough it, and I especially loved the little crispy fried tentacles. I felt brave, I felt cool, I felt like I was pushing the limits of acceptable cuisine.

Fast-forward to today and everything that I hated as a child has now become a mainstay in my life. My ideal lunch would be half-a-dozen oysters on the shell, some chicken liver mousse, and a glass of rose. The sweet breads d'jour at Vin Rouge in Durham are often revelatory. Trotters, tail, tripe, you name it. If it's offal, I'm into it.

Oddly enough the one thing that took me the longest to embrace was octopus*. I can still inhale some fried calamari (and Mateo in Durham has some of the best I've ever had), but I never was able to stomach it prepared any other way. I managed to choke down a still-wriggling baby octopus at a no-name Japanese joint in Manhattan years ago. I would try it grilled and...nope. I was sort of resigned to the fact that I was never going to like octopus. And then I came to Croatia.

Traditional Dalmatian octopus salad

Traditional Dalmatian octopus salad

In Dalmatia, octopus (hobotnica) is everywhere. Grilled, stuffed, sauteed, baked, fried, hot, cold...everywhere. Last July, on my first visit to Trpanj, on the Peljesac peninsula in Dalmatia, I sat down to lunch at the family home of a friend from Durham and his mother plopped down a gigantic platter of octopus salad, salata od hobotnica. I smiled, dug in, and prepared myself to fake "mmmm" my way through the meal. 

It. Was. Delicious. Seriously. I went back for seconds, which is virtually unheard of for me. Over the course of those five days in Trpanj I think I had octopus every single day and each time I had it I fell more and more in love.

Since then I've learned to seek out the places and people that really know how to prepare octopus. They know that it should be properly tenderized (some people say to beat it, some people say to boil it, many Croatians swear by freezing it the night before). They know it does best on either low, slow heat or a searing hot fire. They know that the best octopus is often left alone to be the star of the show, no overwhelming sauces or showy garnishes needed. I had amazing grilled octopus at Rappahannock in Richmond, VA that showed me I didn't need to come all the way to the Adriatic to get my octopod fix. 

Octopus buzara

Octopus buzara

For me, learning to embrace the octopus meant many things; that I was really learning to love Croatia, that I had finally broken through one of my last food issues, and that with just a little bit of searching, I could find the solution to almost any problem.

The octopus has sort of become a metaphor for how I view bravery these days. It might be a bit unwieldy, with eight tentacles and a unfamiliar body, and it might take a little more work to prepare, but when you embrace the octopus you might often find that you've opened up a whole new world of deliciousness. Embrace the octopus in your life and you'll probably be surprised at what you find on the other side.

Do you have a story about embracing your octopus? Share it below in the comments!

*Harper tried to make me title this post "Grab Her by the Octopussy". I refrained, but he wanted everyone to know how clever he was. 

DALMATIAN OCTOPUS SALAD

This recipe is essentially a riff off a traditional Dalmatian octopus salad. You'll find variations on this throughout the region - some will serve it with potatoes, some without. Some with herbs, some with cooked onions, some with raw onions. However you want to dress it up (or down) is really fine, but the essentials are good olive oil, good acid (vinegar or lemon), and properly cooked octopus.

Ingredients

  • 1 octopus (cleaned and defrosted, if frozen)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • good olive oil
  • 1 lemon
  • salt
  • pepper

Directions

  1. Place the octopus in a large pot filled with salted water, add the bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for about 1.5 hours, until the octopus is knife tender*. (Note - this will smell funky, you might want to open some windows.)
  2. Meanwhile, dice the onion and cut the tomato and potatoes into similar-sized pieces.
  3. Bring a second, smaller pot of salted water to a boil, add the potatoes, and cook 10-20 minutes  (depending on how small you cut them) until knife tender. Drain and set aside to cool.
  4. Once the octopus has cooked, carefully remove it from the pot and set aside to cool. Discard the cooking liquid.
  5. When the octopus is cool enough to handle you can begin to remove the skin by gently rubbing it off with your fingers. Rinse the cleaned tentacles and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. 
  6. In a large bowl toss together the cut-up octopus with the diced onion, tomatoes, potatoes, and scallions. Dress with olive oil and the juice of the lemon, add salt and pepper, and taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed.
  7. At this point you can serve the salad at room temperature, or you can refrigerate it for as long as overnight. The flavors will continue to develop and the salad can then be served cold or room temperature.

*knife-tender means that when poked with a sharp knife the knife slides easily in and out.