I am a lover of octopus, but often become entangled in a lackluster embrace with the creature because of the way it is prepared and cooked in a lot of restaurants (and I am seeing it more and more often on Houston-area menus, which I consider a good thing — as long as it is cooked correctly.) It’s often used by some as a dish in the “look at us, we are cooking cool and crazy stuff” category — think hearts and sweetbreads, brains and intestines.
Only thing is, these types don’t know how to prepare such foods (things that have been cooked well and eaten by people around the world for centuries, in rustic stone houses in Spain and fine-dining establishments in France). No, it does not make you cool to cook or eat octopus, but I will respect you if you put it on your menu and prepare it well.
I had octopus recently in Houston, at State of Grace, and I loved it. Cooked perfectly, seasoned well, served on a small platter with a warm potato and mustard salad. I shared it with a friend, and when the dish was clean we wanted to order another one. The greens and potatoes were an excellent addition to the course — bright and warm and drizzled with oil — and the star of the plate, the octopus, was as I tend to like it: slightly charred on the outside and tender on the inside. “Rubbery” is what far too many people utter when I ask them if they would like to order octopus, but when I take them to State of Grace and we share this dish, that word will be nowhere near our thoughts.
Here’s how I do my octopus at home, a process that is not at all cumbersome or complicated. Again, home cooks in Greek villages and other locales have been cooking this creature for eons, so there’s no reason you can’t. First, if you want fresh octopus, find a good purveyor. That might be Central Market, or it could be your local fishmonger (if in Houston, try Airline Seafood). But do not fret if you can find frozen only; I’ve cooked fresh and frozen, and there’s really no discernible difference. (In fact, there is ample evidence that freezing the creatures helps them become tender more quickly.)
Cleaning the octopus is another thing you most likely won’t have to deal with, because all frozen ones will already be cleaned, and if you buy a fresh one just ask the fishmonger to clean it for you. (If you want to know how I clean one, ask in the comments below and I’ll reply.) I shoot for a 3-pound octopus for four people, and I simmer mine in various liquids, including red wine (I’ve also used white wine, fish stock, and water). I don’t skin them, and leaving it on certainly adds to the richness of the cooking liquid. Aim for 15 to 20 minutes of simmering per pound, but don’t rely on that metric alone …
You’re cooking, after all and that is a hands-on experience. When the tip of a knife goes easily into the thickest part of a tentacle, it’s done. After that, your only decision will be how to serve it. You can marinate it, serve it cold, or — my favorite method — grill it.