Octopus Salad

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

For the emulsion:
3 tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. Lemon Juice
1 tbsp. Sherry Vinegar
2 tsp. White sugar
2 tsp. Anchovy Paste
1/2 garlic clove, minced

1 kg Octopus
1 Carrot
1 Celery stalk
6 Cherry Tomatoes, quartered
Parsley, finely chopped
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Basics needed: Octopus

Octopus salad is a very popular dish in Italy. There are many different variants, pretty much every individual/family will have his own way of making it. There is one thing that all versions have in common though, and is the fact that some acidity is needed to get the best out of  the octopus, so an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil and lemon (or vinegar, or both) is normally used.

This recipe follows the same principle; however, the emulsion I use here is loosely inspired by Pad Thai, one of my favourite dishes of any cuisine. Pad Thai owes its characteristic flavour to a sauce that the Thais make mixing tamarind (for acidity), palm sugar (for sweetness) and fish or soy sauce (for saltiness and Umami). Here I replace those Asian ingredients with Western ones to obtain the same combination of tastes, although acidity will be prevalent: lemon juice and vinegar (I use Sherry vinegar as it’s got more depth of flavour than ordinary vinegar) for acidity, plain sugar for sweetness and anchovy paste for saltiness and Umami. I also add some minced garlic, for two reasons: its flavour works very well with octopus (just be careful and don’t be too liberal with it, it should not be overpowering) and also because it contains tensioactive molecules that will stabilise the emulsion.

This is the entire process:

  1. Wash, clean and boil the octopus , and let it cool down in the cooking water (see Octopus for the details)
  2. Dice the head and slice the tentacles; some people like big chunks, I prefer it cut in small pieces, with the exception of the tips of the tentacles, which I keep for presentation purposes (as you can see in the picture); put it in a bowl;
  3. Make the emulsion, whisking all the ingredients in a bowl until they are mixed and the anchovy paste has dissolved
  4. Pour the emulsion over the diced octopus, cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes, or more if time allows it (the longer, the better)
  5. When ready to serve, prepare the vegetables: after washing them, quarter the cherry tomatoes, peel the carrots and then cut them in long threads. That can be done in different ways (with a mandolin, a food processor or even a knife if you are skillful enough). Here I use a Julienne peeler, which is a very quick and effective way to obtain that result
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  6. Add the vegetables and a generous handful of finely chopped parsley to the octopus and mix them together.

Octopus

Octopus is a very popular ingredient in Italian cooking (at least in the coastal areas), and it’s got a lot of qualities, as it is very tasty, low in fat, high in proteins and inexpensive.
Something that puts many people off, however, is the fact that it’s got a reputation for being very tough and rubbery. I definitely agree that it will be virtually inedible if not cooked properly, but if you follow this process, you will get the most tender octopus for your salad or any other dish you want to make.

First of all, as I often do when I talk about seafood, the question is whether buying it frozen is acceptable. Personally, I always buy the fresh one, but freezing it is a necessary step when it comes to octopus.
The reason for this is that, as you probably know, water, when it freezes, expands. This means that, when you freeze foods, the ice crystals that forms inside, by expanding will break down the structure to some extent. This is the reason why, for example, defrosted veggies look mushy and not very firm.
However, this process works in our favour in the case of octopus, as the ice crystals will break down its tough structure, resulting in a more tender meat (the octopus will still need a long cooking time to reach the desired texture though).

When the octopus has been frozen, defrosted and thoroughly washed (pay extra attention as you my find dirt stuck to the suckers), you can prepare it: empty out the head and remove the mouth and the eyes. At this point it’s ready for cooking: if making more than one octopus, I suggest that you cook only octopuses of similar size together, otherwise, due to different cooking times, the results will be inconsistent:

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt (about 5 g per litre) and a bay leaf; you can add half glass (or a different quantity depending on the amount of water) of vinegar if you like it
  2. To give the tentacles a nice, curly appearance, grab the octopus by its head and plunge the tentacles into the boiling water, three times, leaving them in the water for a few seconds each time.
    Bring it back to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer
  3. Simmer for 1 to 2 hours or whatever time is needed depending on the size of the octopus
  4. To check if it’s ready, prick the tentacles near the head; if it’s tender your octopus is cooked
  5. Turn off as soon as it’s ready, overcooking will ruin the texture of your octopus
  6. IMPORTANT: do not remove it from the pan right away but let it cool down in the cooking water instead
  7. Let it cool down in the water. You can remove it from the water when still warm as long as it’s not piping hot; the reason is that, if you remove it when still hot, steam will escape; since steam is simply water in the gas phase, this means that your octopus will dry out and toughen up