Mitsos Taverna, Corfu, Greece – cooked by Agatha, caught by Spiros
Octopus, and the rest of the family of squid, calamari and cuttlefish are sea creatures I would never have eaten as a child in London – I had to wait for the delights of savouring these for travels in Europe – Spain, Italy and then Greece.
These days I know that my holiday has started when we arrive in Athens, settle into our favourite hotel, and then wander up the street to Strofi – a restaurant with a rooftop garden where you can sit, sipping a glass of wine, and watch the sun going down behind the Acropolis. The first thing we order is their octopus salad – a revelation of tender, meaty, lobstery tasting delight – perfection. The shoulders relax, travel fatigue drops away and I begin to enjoy my holiday knowing that there’s plenty more of this where that came from.
It’s a shame that most people I know would never dream of attempting a dish like this because they think that the cleaning is going to be complicated and messy, and the cooking difficult – all not true. Apart from being good for you, as well as delicious to eat – it is cheap. When you look at most seafood around the $25-$35 mark and compare it to squid and octopus at $5-$12 – there’s nothing not to love.
IS OCTOPUS SUSTAINABLE? This question is of increasing concern to most of us as fishing stocks are depleted by unsustainable fishing practices. My advice – buy local. I get mine from a large seafood shop in Ballina that sells everything that is caught when the trawlers go out but is not valued as much by the fishermen – by-catch. This is generally the seafood I favour; squid, sardines, octopus and red mullet and other small fish. If it turns out to be not that good for eating I make stock out of it.
WHY OCTOPUS IS GOOD FOR YOU:
These days we are repeatedly being told that seafood is good for you and we should be eating it at least three times a week and avoiding meat. Apart from being low in calories and saturated fats and high in protein, seafood is increasingly being shown to be helpful is fighting autoimmune diseases – like multiple sclerosis. So what are the nutritional facts about octopus – bearing in mind that I actually eat it because it tastes damn good!
1. Octopus, like nearly all seafood is lean and low in calories and saturated fats. It is however quite high in cholesterol but, like all things, eaten in moderation it won’t do you any harm. It’s a staple food for coastal Greek people who have the famous benefits from eating the so called ‘Mediterranean Diet’ that includes all kinds of seafood, including octopus – with lower rates of stroke and heart disease.
2. Iron. One serve has all the daily requirements for men and half for women – add a handful of parsley girls and your done for the day!
3. B12. Octopus exceeds your daily requirements of this important vitamin that is essential in the production of new red blood cells and supporting everyday brain function.
4. Selenium. One serve of octopus provides more than you daily requirements. An important trace mineral that plays a role in protein metabolism during digestion.
A NOTE ABOUT ROCK BASHING! You may have seen or heard stories about octopus fishermen bashing their catch on rocks to tenderise it,with tentacles and froth flying. This is certainly true if the octopus is going to be flash fried or barbecued – otherwise it is like chewing rubber. However, there is absolutely no need to do this for a dish like this where it is simmered first in water – it honestly renders it delectably tender.
Now, don’t be scared – trust me!
What to Buy
For this dish you need the octopus to be large with thick tentacles – the opposite for when you are buying them for chargrilling on the barbecue – then you need small ones.
Fresh octopus should smell sweet with no trace of ammonia. Use it as soon as possible after purchase, certainly within 36 hours, and do not store with the guts intact – the same goes for squid, calamari and cuttlefish.
How to Clean
Simply cut the head off whole – this way you will not disturb the ink sac, and discard it. Cut the octopus in half and pop out the black ‘beak’ from the middle and discard. Cut the tips off the tentacles and discard. That’s it!
Cleaned octopus ready for cooking
How to Cook
1. Place the cleaned octopus in a saucepan and cover with cold water.
2. Add to this one dessertspoon vinegar, a bay leaf and one clove of garlic sliced.
3. Bring to boil and simmer for 20-40 minutes.
4. Us a small sharp knife to check when it is cooked – it should have lost its rubberyness but be firm and tender.
5. Don’t over cook or it will turn to mush.
6. Drain straight away
7. As soon as the octopus cools a little rub off the dark skin – the is best done wearing disposable gloves. This is a very simple and quick task. There is no need to remove the suckers.
Cooked octopus – just need to get the rest of the skin off
Preparing the salad
1. Slice the cooled octopus into bite size pieces and place in a serving dish.
2. Cover with olive oil, sliced fresh garlic and sprinkle with dried oregano and thyme. It may need a little salt at this stage.
3. Serve with wedges of lemon, fresh black pepper, sprinkle of parsley and crusty bread.
4. If the octopus is fully submerged in the oil it will keep for a week or so in the fridge.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War the author Henry Miller went, for the first time, to Greece to visit his friend Lawrence Durrell and stayed for nine months traveling from Athens, around the Peloponnese, Corfu and to Crete. His experiences are recorded in one of the best travel books you will ever read, The Colossus of Maroussi.
Maybe it just has a real resonance for me because I too went to Greece and fell in love – with the varied landscapes, the romance of being on the edge of Europe and the beginning of the East, the history, the marvelous island journeys, the best swimming in the world, THE FOOD and, most of all the Greeks. I agree with Miller when he says in the book “I like a good Greek meal better than a good French meal, even though it be heresy to admit it”