Monday, January 19, 2015


I didn't grow up eating octopus. To tell the truth, it seemed a little odd to me. But then every restaurant started serving calamari, which became an octopus gateway food for me. Of course, I still didn't have the opportunity to try octopus until I was well into my adult years, but when I did, I loved it. Now I order it every time I see it.

I've heard tales that it takes a long time to tenderize, so I imagined hours and hours of boiling, braising, or simmering. In reality, it takes no more long to cook than, say, beef stew. Less time than short ribs, or baking a turkey. And small octopi take less than an hour. So what's the big deal?

When I saw small octopi in the frozen seafood section of our local Weis Market, I knew it was time to take some home and cook them myself. Our cookbook, Baltimore Chef's Table, features an octopus recipe from Grille 620 in Ellicott City. I've tasted it, it's delicious, but as we don't have a dutch oven or grill pan in our tiny kitchen, I borrowed the idea but changed it up a bit. (As I usually do.) I boiled the cephalopods with lemon and garlic until tender, and then seared them in a screaming hot saute pan to get a little texture. I also added fennel and onion to the beans, and a bit of smoked paprika to the vinaigrette, to mimic the smoky flavor the meat might pick up on a grill.

For my first time cooking octopus, it was a huge success. Next time, I'll seek out a larger specimen.

Octopus with Cannelini Beans and Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette

1 lb octopus (can be one or two whole)
2 lemons, cut in half (divided use)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
Red pepper flakes
Extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 bulb fennel, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 15-oz can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon honey (I used lemon blossom honey, but any neutral honey will do)
Juice of 1 lemon
Smoked paprika
Salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Place octopus, 1 lemon (squeeze the juice over the octopus and toss the halves in too), the garlic, and a big pinch of red pepper flakes in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn heat down a bit. You want an active simmer. Continue to simmer until a knife inserted into the neck of the octopus pierces the flesh easily, about 45 minutes. Remove octopus from pot and place into a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Over medium heat, cook the onion and fennel in a splash of olive oil and pinch of salt until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the drained beans and stir to combine. Heat until beans are warmed through.

While beans are cooking, place the honey in a small bowl. Using a fork or small whisk, blend in the lemon juice. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil, stir to emulsify into a vinaigrette, and season with a big pinch of smoked paprika, plus salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Remove octopus from refrigerator. Separate the legs from the head. If the head is large, cut into 2 or three pieces.

Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a large saute pan and heat until nearly smoking. Carefully add the octopus (it might splatter). Cook for a couple minutes per side, to warm through and add some crispy browned bits. Add the second lemon, cut side down, to the pan, to brown the cut sides and to warm the juice.

To serve, place the beans on a serving plate. Top with octopus. Drizzle vinaigrette over all. Garnish with lemon halves; use them to add a bit more tangy lemon flavor.

Serves 2-4.

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