YouTube Link: Octopus (poached and broiled)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel
When Igor and Diana (my very well traveled students) asked me if I knew how to reproduce an octopus salad they had in Italy, I took this cooking challenge a tad too seriously. First order of business was to taste the octopus worth reproducing. The problem was that I've never been crazy about octopus. It always seemed a tad rubbery and sometimes stringy, but that was in the US. I was sure that somewhere in this world there was great octopus worth eating and after doing a bit of research, I decided that Spain was the place to go. Italy, Portugal, and Greece would work too, but I had other culinary interests in Spain, so that's where I went. Oh, octopus! Where have you been all my life. If I ever step again on the Spanish soil, the first thing I'll eat will be my eight-legged friend.
As soon as I got back to the States, I got to work and am now cooking octopus successfully. The bad thing is that I got my 3 year old addicted to it and it turns out to be more expensive than getting your kid addicted to raw tuna.
Octopus turned out to be quite simple to cook well, but very difficult to buy well. Let's start with the fact that all octopus sold in Boston is previously frozen. In theory that should tenderize it, but I've had some excellent frozen octopus and some terrible one too. The terrible one (bought at a really good fish market, by the way) refused to get tender no matter how long I'd cook it. I have a feeling that freezing alone is not enough. Most Mediterranean cooks know that in order to be tender, octopus has to be beaten into submission. I have a feeling that some of the octopus that I've tried was not beaten enough. That's just my hypothesis. By the time the octopus was in my hands, it was too late to ask it, and the fishmongers would often shrug their shoulders when asked about the provenance of their octopus.
The one place that consistently sells me excellent octopus is the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge. Their octopus cooks to perfect tenderness every time. They are also very helpful with cleaning. The head is usually already empty on a frozen octopus, but you still need to remove the beak that's located between all the legs underneath the head. If you haven't cooked much octopus before, ask your fishmonger to do this for you. If your fishmonger doesn't know how to clean an octopus, it's not a good sign.
Mar 7, 2014 update: Just got an excellent octopus from A&J Seabra in Framingham. It was from Portugal and sold frozen. They can't take the beak out for you since it's frozen, but it's easy if you cut between 2 legs to help you get access to it. Defrost in the fridge for a day or two depending on the size. At $7/Lb, it's the cheapest octopus I've seen in Boston.
The Shrinkage Factor
When I bought my first octopus, I thought it was one of the cheapest seafood ingredients at $9/Lb. But after cooking it, I realized it's one of the most expensive. I can't think of any animal that shrinks more than an octopus during cooking. A 5 Lb octopus yielded 1.25 Lb of usable meat after cooking and scraping off the gelatinous skin, so plan on at least 1 Lb of raw octopus per person.