After a fishing excursion off the coast of Sardinia years ago, where I helped haul in octopi and other fish, Ignazina and Gemi, the owners of the boat, moored on a deserted island and prepared a Lucullan feast, which included the thrashing of octopus on rocks before cooking the writhing creatures in a galley kitchen and turning it into the most transcendent octopus salad I’ve ever eaten. Here’s a shot of Ignazina trying to corral the octopus into submission.
Since then, I’ve noticed that here in the Northeast U.S., octopus has become as ubiquitous on restaurant menus as tiramisu was in the 80s. Not that I’m complaining, because I love it and almost always order it when I see it. But it’s almost always served the same way — grilled in a salad.
But recently I ate an octopus salad at Trattoria Lucca in Charleston, S.C. that veered from the standard grilled fare. It was served with yellow beets and citrus fruits – a refreshing combo for a summer’s day that I couldn’t wait to duplicate once I got home. My version is not exactly the same as Lucca’s, since I added way more octopus, beets and everything else, but I took my inspiration from the dish I ate at that wonderful restaurant in the Holy City.
Instead of roasting the beets, I boiled them and let them cool before attempting to peel. Maybe it’s because I’ve forgotten about them and overcooked them in the oven, but I find it easier to peel boiled beets rather than roasted. I used both yellow and pink and white striped Chioggia beets. You don’t need to use a mandolin – hand slicing is fine.
I bought this whopper of an octopus at my local fish market – Nassau Seafood and it came frozen. The ones I buy are usually from Spain or Portugal. Let the octopus sit in the refrigerator for two days or so until it’s completely thawed out and what you have is something like this:
Expect a lot of shrinkage after cooking. Let it cool, then with your fingers, rub off any extraneous outer pink “skin.”
Cut away the head and beak and discard. Then separate the “legs” with a knife.
At this point, I trimmed off the suckers from the tentacles, not something I always do, but in this case I made an exception.
It’s not necessary, but with an octopus this large, the tentacles are also large and they’re rubbery, a texture I’m not crazy about.
Once the octopus is cooked and trimmed, slice it on the diagonal and lay the pieces over the beets.
Then place sections of grapefruit and orange on top and a handful of watercress leaves in the center. Pour salad dressing on the top, shake some salt and pepper on top and add a final sprinkle of chopped edible flowers for color. (optional).
It’s perfect for summertime entertaining.
If you’d like a recipe for octopus and potato salad, a typical combination found in seaside restaurants in Italy, click on this post.
And if you’re yearning for an excuse to travel to Italy, how about joining us for a memoir writing retreat on gorgeous Lake Como? We have a few spots left, so don’t delay. You don’t have to have writing experience, just the desire to learn and improve. There will be time for afternoon excursions, relaxing, shopping and plenty of delicious eating too.
Check out Italy, In Other Words for more details.
Octopus, Beet and Citrus Salad
1 – 2 1/2 -3 pound cooked octopus (directions below)
about three four beets, cooked in water until tender, then peeled and sliced about 1/8″ thick (use the yellow or Chioggia variety, (not the dark red variety)
1 grapefruit, cut into sections (do this over a bowl and save the juice for the dressing)
1 orange, cut into sections (do this over a bowl and save the juice for the dressing)
chopped up pansies, or other edible flowers
1/2 cup olive oil
juice from the orange and grapefruit used in the salad
white wine or white balsamic vinegar, to taste (the amount will depend on how much juice your have from the orange and grapefruit, but I like a proportion of about 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar)
1 tsp. honey
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Mix everything in a jar and shake until everything is combined.
To cook an octopus
There are many ideas on how to cook octopus so that it’s not tough – – from slow simmers in water, to putting a cork in the water to tenderize the octopus. Others say cooking it in water can “seize up” the octopus and toughen it. This method I outline uses no water, but rather lets the octopus cook in its own liquid. It works perfectly and produces a succulent octopus. Just don’t buy baby octopus. They’re too small and chewy and you won’t get large enough pieces.
Start by gently heating about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large, lidded pot that can also go into the oven. (If you don’t have one, cook the octopus in a lidded pot on the stove, then transfer to a glass or pyrex dish (covered) and place that in the oven. ) Place the whole octopus in the pot and cook at low heat for about 20 minutes. Remove from the stove and place in a preheated 300 degree oven for about an hour. Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. It will be very purple in color and will have shrunk significantly. Cut off the top of the head and the little pointy sharp beak and discard. Peel away the purple skin. Some of the suckers will peel off but many won’t. You can leave them or not. I’ve served it both ways, but if it’s a large octopus, the suckers are also large – and rubbery, so for this salad, I like to slice them off. Rinse under cool water and pat dry. Cut into bite-sized pieces on the diagonal.
Assemble the salad by slicing the beets in a pretty circular fashion on a platter, then layer the octopus and citrus pieces on top. Place a bunch of watercress in the center. Shake some salt and pepper all over the salad, then pour on the dressing. Decorate with minced edible flowers, like pansies.