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I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I lik...

January 23, 2017

Blog the Thirty-eighth: OCTOPUS

Behold!  
in a Seafood Salad
(plus a Bonus Baby Braise)

Women of a certain age develop very definite opinions about color, and the last thing you want is to get lassoed onto a paint committee with them. I'm an idiot savant when it comes to colors. I'm great at mixing and matching them, but I never get their names right, as women of a certain age love to tell me.

I got into it once with such a one when I said that octopus is purple. "No it's not; it's white." I stared at her dumbly, as though she had eight heads. I would concede if she were to insist that I mix up blue and green, but there's no way she'll convince me I mistake white for purple. So I reply, "Well, it's kind of greyish white before you cook it; and the inside is quite white after you cook it; but on the outside it's purple as purple can be." And she, "Well, we've served it to you before, and it was white." Oh, is that what those cyclinders were? I thought they were digits of palm or tofu. Turns out they were cored octopus, which I subsequently spotted in the freezer of the fish market next time I went. You Gentiles had me this time. I was speechless. Dumb with incredulity.

When I was in Brooklyn at Christmastime, I spotted a new fish shop across from the pastry shop, and reconnoitering came upon three crates of octopus of as many sizes. To mine eyes they were beautiful to behold. When I asked the fishmongress where they came from, she said "Portugal". That clinched it, as my father always said the best octopus is fresh from Portugal, so I decided to buy some to make for my mother and me that night. I was tempted by the baby ones, which we cook in spicy tomato sauce, but t'was the season for octopus salad, so I decided to decide between the middle and mega size. The reddish color of the big boy before me seized my sensorium, so I asked for him. When he weighed in at $24, I think I manged to keep custody of my facial features as I gulped out, "That's fine."

I ended up sending a pic of the big boy boiled to my friend of definite opinions, with the text, 
"Documentary proof that octopus is purple:" 




She texted back, it's "ochre". Now I don't know how big a Crayola box you have to buy to come up with a color-name like "ochre", but it's not a box I've ever had access to. So I googled "purple" and then "ochre".  She seemed to have a point, if the Web may be trusted, and if you see no contradiction in one selfsame name for a yellowish red and a reddish yellow (primary colors both, I note). But I'm telling you that if you tell my mother that octopus is ochre, she is going to stare at you dumbly, as though you had eight heads.

Now I might be tempted to appeal eristically to etymology: the Latin word purpura in fact referred to a range of color far wider than our word "purple", a range that extended well into our reds (think crimson). However, no need, for I brought some leftover octopus salad for my college vegetarian friend at our traditional New Year's Eve party, and when I asked the Gentile women thereall women of a certain age and definite opinionswhat color the octopus was, they skipped not a beat before replying "purple". Whether olive oil and lemon juice have the potency to turn "ochre" purple, I can't say. As I say, I remain dumb.

But I do have a lot to say about another thing my friend of definite opinions texted back, "OMG, how beautifully ugly!" I can see how octopus might be thought horrible to behold by those accustomed to beholding it cored. But I also know that what is horrible to behold may yet be beautiful to contemplate, as in Greek tragedy, for although the Greeks did all the gorey stuff off-stage (obscenum), judging it unfit to behold (whence "obscene"), they did not judge it unfit to bewail ... so they returned to stage to wail at length in exquisite verses celebrated to this day.

So as the distinction has its warrant, I gladly concede that octopus may be at once ugly and beautiful in different respects, and I gladly concede this for the fun, moreover, of making use of my favorite infinitive to make the distinction, the epexegetical infinitive. As you know, gentle Reader, I have a prediliction for grammar, indeed a zeal. It is like the zeal of a reformed alcoholic, in that I was converted to grammar quite late in life, when I did an intensive course in Latin the summer after my first year in graduate school. I had been a good writer before then, but as with most speakers of most languages, by way of brute imitation. I could barely believe it when I discovered there was actually a comprehensive explanation for all the ways we talk, operable principles. In discovering the principles of my own speech, indeed my thought, I felt I had discovered myself. With self-knowledge came self-possession and self-expression. I preach it ever since.

In the case at hand, is it not in the eye of the beholder that the octopus is now beautiful, now ugly, now beautifully ugly? If so, then let us modify our modifiers with an expegetical infinitive: let us say not beautiful simply, but beautiful to beholdor if you be Gentile and squeamish, beautiful to contemplate even if ugly to behold
or whatever infinitive you need to make non-contradictory sense of the ejaculation,"How beautifully ugly!". 

In any case, as the adjectival modifier of the octopus is already exegetical, so to speak, its own adverbially modifying infinitive is an exegesis upon an exegesis, hence ep-exegetical, which is as fun to say as to understand, once you can. Yes, grammar is fun to know, as well as conducive to self-possession.

But I digress. Back to the octopus. If you're an attentive Gentile, you may have wondered what I meant above when I said that being Christmastime t'was the season for octopus salad. Well, as I've mentioned before, for the Italians of middle south Italy, dinner on Christmas Eve is always a fish feast, and the center of the fish feast is the seafood salad, and the center of the seafood salad is the boiled octopus. In fact, I'll hazard the theory that an Italian seafood salad is just an enhanced octopus salad whose enhancements got out of hand in the exuberance of the Christmas event.

The most common way my people make octopus during the rest of the year is as a "salad" in the sense that you boil it and then toss it with celery, olives, scallions, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.  



The other boiled fish added to it Christmas Evesquid, conch (scungilli), probably shrimps, maybe crab or lobster (by way of innovation)such fish we never boil on their own, but only on the Eve to combine with the octopus.  
So I own octopus to be king fish of the Fisher King's feast.

There's even a bit of sacramental ceremony in boiling it. Once you have your pot of water at a rolling boil, you dunk the octopus three times, as though baptizing it, before dropping it into the water to simmer 20 minutes, with cover ajar. Then you turn off the heat, cover the pot, and leave it sit for at least 20 more minutes, or as long as you like, until you're ready to dress it. For some reason, the cooking time stays the same no matter how big the octopus is, and it doesn't matter how long it rests in the cooking water. Done right, it will be pleasantly plump and springy to chew, not chewey or mealy. It can be served warm, at room temperature, or even cooled, depending on season, mood, or need.

My mother has always used plain water to boil it. But I aromatized my water by bringing it to a rapid boil with a couple teaspoons of salt, a half dozen black peppercorns, a pair of bay leaves, and a few cracked garlic cloves. My mother liked the effect, so it has been mother-approved. I had brined the octopus for a few hours (1/4-cup coarse salt/1-qt. water) but rinsed it well before boiling. I boiled it at a steady simmer, rather than a rapid boil, with cover barely ajar, and waited 40 minutes for it to cool down to warm before cutting the tentacles into plump digits and the head into slender rings. I lightly crushed a garlic clove against the bottom of my serving bowl, which I rubbed down with garlic milk before tossing in the cut-up octopus.

Then I cut up some scallion (although I could have used red onion). After trimming each scallion of root and tough skin, I cut it into 2-inch lengths which I halve first lengthwise and then crosswise, to come up with rectangular lengths commensurable with the octopus cuts. Then I cut up the tender hearts of fresh celery into similar lengths (although I prefer fennel, by way of innovation rather than tradition). Now chop a goodly portion of fresh parsley as well. For the finish, a fistful of green olives.

For the dressing, a generous dousing with olive oil (I prefer regular to extra virgin, or maybe half and half); equal squirts of both fresh lemon and white vinegar; light sprinkles of salt and grindings of black pepper. Toss it all together, patiently folding all in all, until the octopus glistens. Then taste and adjust. If not succulent enough, add more oil. If not tangy enough, add more lemon or vinegar. If too lemony, add vinegar; if too vinegary, add lemon. If none of the above is what it needs, then it needs salt.

We eat octopus as the main dish with crusty bread and sundry sides. Even my mother liked the Falanghina I opened in honor of our purpley cephalopod. 





 We had some cheese after our green salad, as we often do after fish dinners; then fruit; and there was even some leftover pastry to be had with our demitasse. T'was the season indeed.

The Great Seafood Salad

To enhance your octopus salad for the feast, add boiled squid and shrimp. Tradition also calls for scungilli (conch), and though its antiquity cannot be questioned, its chewiness and flavor often are. At the other extreme, I personally don't approve either of the modernity or tenderness of crab and lobster in the Great Seafood Salad, but there's no use arguing with the excesses of Christmas, beginning with the Incarnation, is there?

Choose medium-sized squid for boiling.  (The smallest & tenderest are best breaded and broiled, and the meaty are best braised with tomatoes.)  Bring the water to a rapid boil, optionally with a couple teaspoons of salt, a couple bay leaves, a couple garlic cloves, a couple of dried hot-peppers, and/or half-dozen black peppercorns.  Stir the squid into the rapidly boiling water, and then reduce to a steady simmer.  For tenderness "they" say to boil squid either short or long; my mother boils long, about 30 minutes.  After draining and cooling, cut the body up into rings commensurable with the octopus cuts.  All the cuts for the Great Seafood Salad should be a little smaller than usual, to abet intermixing of kinds.

Likewise, choose medium-sized shelled shrimp.  Again bring the water to a rapid boil, but this time with the aromatic trio of carrot, celery, and onion, optionally, plus garlic clove and/or fresh parsley sprigs.  I would let the aromatics boil for 10-15 minutes before adding the shrimp to simmer very briefly, for tenderness as little as five minutes.  They're ready as soon as they're pink.

Could you boil your shrimp in the shell?  Wouldn't you get flavor from that?  Well maybe you could, if you're a Gentile, since for some reason you who are grossed out by fish-heads aren't grossed out by shrimp poop.  But Italian ladies think fish poop is disgusting, even if nutritious.  So they always shell their shrimp and cut a slit along the curved back of each shrimp to expose and remove the thread of dark poop.  I'm not sure this is much more rational than cutting off fish-heads, but I guess it's all how all you behold it, eh?

When my mother includes conch, she always buys it pre-cooked and frozen.  She said you wouldn't want to use the one in the shell, but she didn't say why, naturally, and I didn't ask her why, unnaturally. I had the feeling she thinks the extra work wouldn't be worth it. However, given that when people don't like scungilli, it's because of its assertive flavor and chewy texture, I can't help but wonder if fresh wouldn't be fresher.  In any case, I would surely defrost the frozen scungilli in a brine of 1/4C coarse salt/1qt. water all day, before boiling for ten minutes, to heat it through (by the way, I don't see any reason not to boil it in the same water as the shrimp, after fishing the shrimp out with a slotted spoon).  Shape-cut the scungilli into thin rounds for adding to the salad.

The Great Seafood Salad is dressed just like octopus salad.  Whether you use scallions or red onion, it can be nice to soak the sliced onion in salted water for 20 minutes, to make them milder and sweeter., before draining and drying for adding to the salad. 

The garlic cloves go in whole, if lightly cracked, for aroma only; one counts on the eaters to recognize them and not eat them.  Green olives are nicest, but any you like will do.  

For olive oil, I use half regular and half extra virgin, as the former alone seems light and the latter alone overbearing.  

Use both fresh lemon juice and white vinegar, which offset one another's acidity, strangely enough.  My parents always used ordinary white vinegar, but I prefer white-wine vinegar.  

This salad likes lots of fresh parsley, chopped coarsely.  

And, of course, as ever, the right amount of salt is critical, so taste and adjust, no doubt needing less if you put salt into the boiling water, and more if you didn't, but surely needing some for the dressing even if not for the fish.  

Freshly ground black pepper is a matter of taste: I like lots, but my mother's people think it gives you kidney stones, not rationally.

Postscript:
Octopus Baby Braise 

If a mega octopus is horrible to behold, imagine a score of baby octopi peering up at you out of a purgatorial bath of boiling tomato sauce. Horrible to behold even for me, but not the less delicious to eat for that. The recipe my mother gave me was: "just make a hot marinara with pepperoncini and cook them in it." That's the recipe. She told me to make the marinara "dry", because the octopus will shed a lot of water into the sauce. That gave me the idea of cooking it just as I do calamari with tomatoes.

Put the baby octopi to soak in a brine of 1/4-cup coarse salt/1-qt. water as soon as you get home from shopping. When ready to cook, rinse and drain them well. Then bedrizzle a heavy-bottomed pot with a little olive oil, add the octopi, and turn the heat up to medium. As the octopi heat up, they will shed water. Once the shed water heats up to a simmer, dump it into a bowl to save it.

Now add in a generous amount of garlic thinly slice or coarsely chopped, an elective amount of hot red peppers finely chopped, and a general dousing of regular olive oil. Toss the octopi in the oil until the oil heats to a sizzle lively enough to gild the garlic and release its aroma. Then add in roughly chopped pelati, more or less equal in bulk to the octopi. I seed the tomatoes to rid them of their liquid as well as their seeds, by slicing them crosswise and then squeezing the seeds out of the halves on rivulets of tomato juice. Once the chopped pelati heat up tossed with the baby octopi, I add back in the octopus water from before. This way the octopus cooks in its own juice, rather than the tomato juice, and doesn't take too long to simmer down to a satiny sauce.

Needless to say, you eat it with crusty bread. Can you put it on pasta or rice? Not on my watch.


*

Octopus Salad

* Put the octopus to soak in a brine salty as the sea (1/4-C salt/1-qt. water) until time to cook. Drain & rinse before boiling.
* Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, optionally with a couple garlic cloves, couple bay leaves, couple teaspoons of salt, plus half-dozen black peppercorns.
* Dunk the octopus three times in the boiling water before dropping it into the pot. With cover ajar, bring to a steady simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and cover pot completely. Let octopus rest at least 20 minutes, better 40, or for as along as you like or need.
* Slice up scallions or red onion, and put to soak in salted water for twenty minutes or so. Drain, rinse, & dry.
* When ready to, cut octopus tentacles into thick digits and head into slender rings. Add the octopus into a bowl smeared with the juice of a couple garlic cloves lightly crushed against its bottom. Add sliced onion, sliced celery, and green olives.
* Drizzle all generously with a first layer of regular olive oil. Next, sprinkle evenly with a shower of salt and grindings of black pepper. Squirt evenly all over first with fresh lemon juice and then also white vinegar. Finish with a drizzling on top of extra virgin olive oil. Now toss and toss, flipping and folding, to mix and marry, until octopus glistens with the glaze.
* Taste and correct: if not succulent enough, add more oil; if not tangy enough, add more vinegar and/or lemon;
if too vinegary, add more lemon; if too lemony, add more vinegar. If somehow still not there, needs salt.
* Eat with crusty bread and mild sides.

*

Seafood Salad

* Put seafood to soak in a brine salty as the sea (1/4-C salt/1-qt. water) until time to boil. Drain & rinse before boiling.
* OCTOPUS: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil (optionally with a couple garlic cloves, couple bay leaves, couple teaspoons of salt, plus half-dozen black peppercorns). Dunk the octopus three times in the boiling water before dropping it into the pot. With cover ajar, bring to a steady simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and cover pot completely. Let octopus rest at least 20 minutes, better 40, or for as along as you need.
When ready to, cut octopus tentacles into thick digits and head into slender rings. Add the octopus into a bowl smeared with the juice of a couple garlic cloves lightly crushed against its bottom.
* SQUID: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil (optionally with a couple garlic cloves, couple bay leaves, couple teaspoons of salt, a couple hot peppers, plus half-dozen black peppercorns). Simmer steady with cover ajar to tender, 30-40 minutes. Drain and when warm cut the bodies into rings. Add rings and tentacles into bowl with octopus.
* SHRIMP: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil (optionally with some carrot, celery, & onion, plus garlic clove, parsley sprigs, and salt). Add shrimp, shelled & disemboweled, and simmer just until pink and tender, about 10 minutes. Add into salad bowl with octopus and squid.
* CONCH (a.k.a. Scungilli) Defrost pre-cooked conch in brine; heat through 10-15 minutes in boiling water (perhaps in shrimp's boiling water, after removing shrimp with slotted spoon). Cut and shape into thin rounds for adding to salad.
* CONDIMENTS: Bestrew seafood in salad bowl with sliced onion, sliced celery, and green olives.
* DRESSING: Drizzle all generously with a first layer of regular olive oil. Next, sprinkle evenly with a shower of salt and grindings of black pepper. Squirt evenly all over first with fresh lemon juice and then also white vinegar. Finish with a drizzling on top of extra virgin olive oil. Now toss and toss, flipping and folding, to mix and marry, until octopus glistens with the glaze.
* Taste and correct: if not succulent enough, add more oil; if not tangy enough, add more vinegar and/or lemon;
if too vinegary, add more lemon; if too lemony, add more vinegar. If somehow still not there, needs salt.
* Eat with crusty bread and mild sides.

*

Baby Octopus Braise

* Put baby octopi to soak in a brine salty as the sea (1/4-C salt/1-qt. water) until time to cook. Drain & rinse before cooking.
* Bedrizzle a pot lightly with olive oil, add baby octopi with a general sprinkling of salt, and heat over mild heat. The octopi will shed watery juice; once that juice heats to a simmer, strain it into a bowl for later use.
* Bestrew the octopi gnerously with garlic thinly sliced or coarsely chopped, and bedrizzle generously with olive oil. Turn the heat up and toss the octopi in the sizzling oil as it gilds and sweetens the garlic.
* As soon as the garlic blushes sweet, add in tomatoes chopped, seeded, and drained, about equal in bulk to the octopus, along with a sprinkling of salt for the tomato. Toss the tomato with the octopi, heating it to a sizzling glisten. Now add in the reserved octopus juice, and bring the pot to a steady simmer.
* Cook, tossing now and again, until the octopi are tender and the sauce pulpy.
* Eat with crusty bread and mild sides.