Yesterday was my birthday. I might be one of the only people you know of who wants, truly wants, to spend his or her birthday cooking an elaborate feast with the ingredients that are usually regarded as too complicated for everyday meals. Lobster, chateaubriand, octopus. Yes, octopus. I have never actually cooked octopus before because, frankly, my sweet, Southern city had never been quite cosmopolitan enough to have a store that stocked whole octopus in the seafood case. Enter Whole Foods.
We got our first (and only, so far) Whole Foods at the end of last summer. It’s a lovely store. It has a CharBar, coffee shop, and wood fired pizza. Essentially, as it is a five-minute drive from my place of employment, it became my lunch spot pretty quickly. And then my grocery store. They also make pretty awesome cakes, I found out last night. I had seen a whole octopus in the seafood case a few weeks ago, and I went yesterday to see if they had one in stock. They sure did.
Isn’t he a beauty? I motioned the seafood dude over and pointed at the octopus. “So, do people here actually buy octopus, or does this guy just hang around and you know…” I came short of saying the word “rot.” This was Whole Foods, people. I didn’t want to offend the guy responsible for providing me with delicious, sustainable seafood. He assured me that Mobilians love their octopus as much as their crawfish, cocktails, and football (I paraphrased a bit). So that’s how I came to be the proud owner of two of this guy’s tentacles. The two on his right, to be exact.
I apologize for this photo if you are squeamish about raw seafood. I find there’s something hauntingly beautiful and otherworldly about octopus. They’re also pretty delicious, if prepared correctly. If not, their texture is reminiscent of those incredibly wide, tough rubber bands that never actually expand enough to do their job.
Last Saturday, I asked a food-savvy friend how she cooked it, and she claimed you always boiled it with a cork. That was news to me, but Serious Eats affirmed this. It is imperative to use the best olive oil one can find for the finishing of this dish and freshly ground pepper and salt. It only needs a little kiss from the grill grates; any longer than a few minutes a side might dry it out. Now that there are decent wines without real corks, be aware you’ll need a bottle with one. Most of the ones in my wine fridge are screw tops (I can admit that without being embarrassed–right? Right?)
My son ate almost an entire tentacle. We actually had to fight over the last morsel. The octopus has none of the rubbery texture one would expect–in fact, it is soft and meltingly tender. The marriage of olive oil and lemon, ever-so-slight char from the grill, and the clean brine of the sea is a dish that made this birthday meal one for the ages.
Italian-Style Grilled Octopus
I've made this recipe with whole octopus and just tentacles. Depending on how much octopus you have, the simmering time will range from 20 minutes to a little over an hour.
- 3 pounds cleaned octopus
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup whole peppercorns
- 2 lemons plus additional lemon wedges for serving
- 1 wine cork
- 2 cloves garlic peeled
- 1/2 cup of your best olive oil divided
In a large pot, place the octopus along with the wine, peppercorns, 1 lemon cut in half, cork, and garlic. Cover with water by 1 inch and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the octopus until it is tender when pierced with a sharp knife. (Anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.)
Drain, and allow the octopus to come to room temperature.
Meanwhile, prepare a gas or charcoal grill.
Toss the octopus with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place the octopus on the grill and cook for a few minutes on both sides until the octopus is well browned, but still remains moist, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Cut the octopus tentacles, place on a platter and drizzle with the remaining olive oil, juice of the remaining lemon, and season with salt and pepper.
Serve immediately or at room temperature with lemon wedges if desired.
Update: We grilled this again, and this time used a whole octopus. It took 70 minutes to get meltingly tender.