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Octopus And Potato Salad

Thank you dear readers, for not clicking off this post when you saw the word “octopus.” Now I know many of you have eaten octopus, but wouldn’t think of cooking it any sooner than you’d think of jumping into the Atlantic Ocean in January.

But wait! It’s easier to cook than you think and tastes infinitely better than anything you could buy already prepared. With Christmas eve coming up, I thought I’d revisit this recipe that I posted when I first started blogging in 2008. The hardest part is getting over the squeamish feeling you might have about handling this unwieldy cephalopod.

But if you think this is unwieldy, try hoisting a live, squiggly octopus into a boat, as I once did off the coast of Sardinia – an activity I hope to duplicate again next summer.

I can buy octopus fresh at my fish store in the Christmas season, but it also comes frozen at the grocery store. The frozen ones (from Mediterranean countries) are quite good, and the freezing process actually helps to tenderize them. Buy the biggest one you can because it shrinks a lot, and the bigger the octopus, the larger and more “meaty” your slices will be. This one weighed about three pounds.

Maybe you’re still reading this, but I bet you’re still not on board with me, are you? I know, it is slippery and ungainly. But hey, you can check it off your bucket list! What? “Cooking an octopus”  isn’t on your bucket list? Come on, where are your priorities?

Alright then, for those of you intrepid folks still with me, you probably know there are many thoughts on the best way to cook an octopus to make it tender, some of them involve thrashing the octopus on rocks, and some involve cooking with a cork or dipping it into boiling water three times before immersing it completely.

I don’t do any of those and I am here to tell you that I’ve been cooking octopus for years and my technique ALWAYS produces a tender result. You start out by placing the whole octopus into a sturdy pot where you’ve placed a bit of olive oil on the bottom. It cooks, in its own juices, over low heat on the range, covered, for about 20 minutes. After that time, it will have shrunk a lot and turned a purple-y color. Transfer it to a glass or pyrex or ceramic baking dish, cover and bake in a 300 degree oven for one hour.

It will shrink a little bit more after baking for an hour. Let it cool in its own juices.

Now this next part is messy, I’m the first to admit. But big whoop – you have a sink with running water, right? So you just wash your hands afterwards.

OK, let’s get down to business. After the octopus has cooled enough to handle, cut off the head from the rest of the body. See that grey-ish opaque thing-y at the juncture where the legs meet the head? That little “beak”  feels like hard plastic, so remove it with a paring knife. Throw it out, along with the head (although some people do eat the head).

Now take a sharp knife and separate the legs (tentacles) from each other.

Many people (and restaurants) serve the octopus with the suckers still attached, but in larger octopi especially, I think the suckers and surrounding skin taste gelatinous, and I prefer to remove them. Besides, removing the suckers leaves you with white flesh, which is more appealing to me visually in this salad. But if you like the suckers, by all means, leave them on.

One of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever eaten – at Porta in Asbury Park, N.J., is served with its suckers on. It’s dripping in butter, which may have something to do with why it’s so good – along with the capers and fennel and parley salad it’s served with.

If you want to remove the suckers however, a quick way is to hold each tentacle under cold running water, and use your fingers to “scrape” along the length of the leg. Pat dry.

Slice the octopus and place in a bowl.

Add the potatoes and the rest of the ingredients and mix well.

Caveat emptor, octopus is not inexpensive. Octopus for a salad of this size (serving four as a salad, or eight as an appetizer) will cost from $35 to $50 at the fish store. But for a once a year special event, like Christmas eve, it’s worth it. Serve it as an appetizer with crusty slices of bread, or as a side salad.

Now have I convinced you to cook octopus? Spero di si. Buon Natale tutti.

Octopus And Potato Salad
 
 
Ingredients
  • 1 large octopus - 3 to 4 pounds
  • olive oil to coat the bottom of a pan
  • 6-8 small fingerling potatoes (or other waxy potatoes - enough to amount to about 1 cup or however many potatoes you want)
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of one lemon
  • ¼ cup white balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup finely minced red onion
  • ¼ cup finely minced celery
  • a touch of red pepper flakes, optional
  • 2 T. minced parsley
  • salt, pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Place olive oil on the bottom of a sturdy pan and put over low heat, lowering the octopus into the pan. Cover with a lid and cook over low heat for 20 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, cook the potatoes in water until just tender, then remove from water and let cool.
  3. Remove from heat and put the octopus in a glass or ceramic dish. Cover and cook in a 300 degree oven for one hour.
  4. Remove from oven and let it cool.
  5. Cut the head from the octopus and remove the beak.
  6. Remove the suckers and outer purply skin by rinsing under cold water.
  7. Slice the octopus and the potatoes, then mix with all the other ingredients. Adjust seasonings to taste.
 

Christmas Eve Feast Of The Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes

Just in case you’re planning a multi-fish extravaganza for Christmas eve and are still trying to decide what to make, here are some ideas to whet your appetite. I’ve made all of these in years past, and most of them will be on my table again this year, including this spaghetti ai frutti di mare. It was a favorite last Christmas eve, so it makes the cut again for this year. I’ll serve it following the hors d’oeuvres that will be mostly fished-based, except for a couple of dishes for the vegetarians present.  It’s always a juggling act trying to balance the numerous  pots on the burners and dishes in the oven, so that none of them is overcooked (or undercooked.)
So I make sure I have a few things that can be made ahead of time, including this favorite of
baccalà mantecato with grilled polenta that we’ll eat before dinner while sipping prosecco.
My dad arrives with these codfish cakes. They reheat very well in the oven, maintaining their crunchy exterior. We’ll munch on these before dinner too.
If you think you don’t like octopus, you haven’t tried my Octopus and potato salad. It’s almost like eating lobster, especially if you peel the octopus and trim away the “suction cups” after cooking. Get the largest octopus you can find in order to get nice chunky pieces.
If I weren’t making the spaghetti ai frutti di mari, I might be making this dish with squid:
Some years, I’ve skipped the pasta and made this dish instead:
Seafood Risotto
But if there’s one dish that absolutely must be on our Christmas eve table, it’s this one. My son has taken over the preparation of this and has become quite adept at it:
Too many dishes with tomato sauce can make for a lopsided menu, but if stuffed squid’s not your thing, make it easy on yourself and try this swordfish in tomato and caper sauce.
Last year, I added this dish to the menu and everyone loved it. It can be made ahead of time and baked right before serving – swordfish involtini
And if you manage to have a taste of all these dishes, by the end of the evening, you might want to have this handy:
Buon Natale a tutti.
Involtini Di Pesce Spada (swordfish Rollups)

Involtini di Pesce Spada (swordfish rollups)

Christmas eve is the one night of the year when my family’s table is laden with fish – everything from spaghetti with mixed shellfish, to baccala’ cakes, to stuffed squid and lots more. We never called it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” because we never counted. My mom just served fish – and plenty of it. The first time I went to Italy, I found it odd that my relatives there in the north don’t really make a fuss about fish for Christmas eve dinner. This “feast of the seven fishes” was totally unknown to them. My mother adopted the culinary customs of her Southern Italian family she married into, but even they didn’t have a prescribed number of fish dishes. The custom of “seven” seems to have been invented by Italian Americans. 

Whatever you call it, I still cook fish for Christmas eve and I too, can’t be sure yet on whether there will be seven. Some years it’s five, some years it’s 10 and gosh, maybe it’ll be seven this year, but if that happens, it’ll be purely by accident. I usually make my traditional dishes (there HAS to be stuffed squid and baccala), but I’m frequently guided by what looks freshest at the fish store the morning of Christmas eve. This year I plan to add involtini di pesce spada – or swordfish rollups – to the menu. I ate these the first time I went to Sicily years ago and have tried – and failed – to find a good recipe since then. But last month, Fabrizia Lanza gave a talk at the Italian cultural organization I’m involved with. When I saw the cookbook, I wanted to make everything in it, including her involtini di pesce spada. Once I did, I knew I had finally found the right recipe for that dish. It’s almost identical to what I ate in Palermo years ago and it’s delicious.
I made this for a dinner party last month so I bought a huge hunk of swordfish, but you can use buy a small amount and make it for one or two people.
I cut my chunk in half, because after pounding the slices, I knew they would spread out a bit. I didn’t want them to be so large that they’d be unwieldy to handle. Then I sliced thin pieces from each chunk, but it’s not easy, I’m warning you. I even put the fish in the freezer for about an hour to make it less “jiggly” when I cut into it. It helped somewhat. I may see if my fish guy can do this for me next time.
Here’s what I ended up with from about three pounds of swordfish.
I put some waxed paper on both sides of the fish and gently pounded with the flat side of a meat pounder until it flattened a bit (don’t use the side with the prongs or you’ll tear the fish apart.)
Then I added the stuffing. You can smear it all over the fish, or leave it in one spot. If you leave it in one spot, you’ll have a finished dish that has a lot of stuffing in one central place. If you spread it out, then you’ll have something like the first picture above. Or do a little of both. Either way works fine.
After they’re rolled up and coated with breadcrumbs, place them in a casserole with slices of lemon, orange and bay leaves in between. I have a bay leaf plant and was able to use fresh bay leaves. If you can’t find them, use dry ones. This casserole served enough for five people with some leftover after the dinner. I even had a few that I didn’t put in the large casserole.
Instead, I put them in a smaller container and froze them for later use. They later cooked up just as if they had been fresh, so you can definitely make this ahead of time and freeze it.

It sure was nice to pull that out of the freezer and sit down to this for dinner a couple of weeks later.
These were so easy to make and taste so great that I plan to add this to my Christmas eve fish feast from now on.
Ciao Chow Linda was recently interviewed by N.J. Monthly for a story about the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” You can read more about my childhood memories of that night here.
Here are some other recipe ideas if you want to have your own “Feast of the Seven Fishes”:

Involtini di Pesce Spada
from Fabrizia Lanza’s “Coming Home To Sicily”
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 3/4 cups unseasoned dried breadcrumbs, divided
1 lemon, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 orange, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dried currants (I used white raisins, cut into small pieces)
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
fine sea salt and black pepper
1 pound swordfish, sliced into 8 thin pieces (about 1/3 inch thick; if the pieces are too thick, you can pound them gently between pieces of wax paper)
12 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle the bottom of a medium baking dish with olive oil.
Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and onion in a medium skillet and cook over medium-high heat until softened, about three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup breadcrumbs, mixing everything together until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the oil. (I made the mistake of mixing all the breadcrumbs with the other ingredients the first time I made this, and it was fine.) Return to low heat and toast the breadcrumbs slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon and orange juices, the currants, pinenuts, and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay a piece of swordfish on a work surface and put a heaping tablespoon of the breadcrumb filling (squeeze it in your hand to compact t) in the center and roll up. Repeat with the remaining swordfish and filling.
Pour some olive oil into a shallow pan and fill another shallow pan with the remaining 2 cups breadcrumbs. Dip each roll-up first in the oil, then dredge in the breadcrumbs until lightly coated. Place the swordfish roll-ups snugly in the baking dish and tuck the bay leaves and lemon and orange slices between the rolls. Drizzle with some more olive ol and bake until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. (Mine needed 15 minutes to cook through.)
Serves four.