An intelligent meal
When it comes to the molluscan cephalopod known as the octopus there are two ongoing conversations. One concerns what scientists have deemed the surprising or uncommon intelligence of the invertebrate, an intelligence that originates from 130 million neurons residing in its brain and twice that many spread across eight partially autonomous tentacles. In drawing their conclusion, observers cite behaviors they classify as clever, playful, or expressing character.
The other conversation is focused on how to properly cook one. Methods for tenderizing the rubbery flesh (from forceful blows to massaging) followed by how and for how long to cook it (anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours) is of principle concern. And while the scientists’ discussion is one of like minds building a unified body of knowledge, the cooks’ is disparate and without a reliable conclusion.
Where these two conversations intersect a passionate circle begs the question, should we be eating them in the first place? In Japan, the largest consumer of octopus, few would say no. The meat is commonly eaten in forms ranging from delicate slices of sashimi to the famous street food takoyaki (grilled dough balls filled with bits of octopus).
While octopus has long been a part of northern Mediterranean and Asian diets, a generation of adventurous eaters is slowly bringing it to more tables and a wider audience around the world. If freshness is not of primary concern, frozen octopus is now more readily available than ever. It is even preferred by some who believe that freezing tenderizes the meat. In Japan freshness reigns supreme. And with ocean on all sides and in between the string of islands, fresh octopus is easy to obtain. But it can intimidate even the best chefs. Nobuhisa Abe, the chef at Michelin starred Ginsushi, won’t touch one. “I don’t like how it feels,” he said, visibly shuddering.
Indeed, you must get up close and personal to properly cook octopus and the feel of the raw flesh is the largest barrier to preparing it at home. The first step (provided the fish monger has already emptied the head sack) requires intimate contact with a slimy, unstructured, 8-pronged mass of muscle that flops about in an unruly fashion. In his seminal volume Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji suggests tenderizing the meat by massaging it in a bowl of grated daikon radish. Salt is a simpler and equally effective alternative.
Lightly simmered octopus meat is lovely. The flesh is crisp white and lean, the skin a purplish red scrim stretched over a translucent gelatinous layer. The experience of eating octopus lies more in the consistency than in the taste. It is chewy but does not require unusual effort to eat and pairs well with all kinds of light dressings.
Bring home a roughly one and a half pound fresh octopus. Set a very large pot of lightly salted water on a strong flame to boil. Prepare a bowl with at least 1/2 a cup of table salt within easy reach. When the pot is close to a boil (and no sooner*) place the octopus whole in a large bowl or directly into a freshly cleaned sink. Take liberal handfuls of salt and vigorously massage it into the entire body for about 5 minutes. Rinse thoroughly in cold water and strain. Grasping by the head, lower the legs slowly into the just boiling water. Lift and gently submerge twice more, a little further each time. This encourages the legs to curl just so. On the third descent lower the octopus completely into the water. Simmer for 5-6 minutes, gently moving it around the pot occasionally to be sure it cooks evenly. ** Remove from the water and set with legs down in a strainer. Set aside to cool slowly.
* Be sure your water is almost at a boil before salting the octopus. The massaging is intended to tenderize the meat while the salt rub acts to cleanse the octopus and remove any slimy film or unpleasant odors from the skin. But too much salt left on for too long will counter the effect and toughen the meat.
** The cool octopus will naturally bring the boiling water down to a simmer. If, in the course of cooking, the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat.
When the octopus is cool, rinse under cool water to remove any residue from the simmering process. Pay particular attention to inside the sucker rings. Remove one tentacle by slicing up the skirt on either side towards the head and then cutting it free. Remove about one inch from the very tip of the tentacle. Lay the tentacle on a cutting board, suckers up, with the larger end on the left. Starting at the left, slice off thin rounds at an angle. Arrange on a serving plate and serve sashimi style with your choice of dressing. *
* Some ideas for dressings include:
Biniku jouyu, pickled plum and soy based sauce
Good olive oil and sea salt.
A dash of yuzukosho, a peppery citrus paste