I bought a big bag of frozen octopus for a few quid on a whim before Christmas from an Asian supermarket: every now and then I’ve idly wondered how I’d be best tackling them in the kitchen. I’ve often thought some kind of Iberian treatment would be good – garlic, olive oil, onions and tomatoes would be natural bedfellows – and after my recent visit with Miss South to Estrela, where the polvo was divine, I was tempted by tentacles.
A cursory scout on the web for Portuguese octopus recipes didn’t provide anything definitive, but then I often spend a bit of time online just to get inspiration from flavours and pairings of ingredients. I had a range of directions to follow, a range of references, and a healthily stocked kitchen, so I decided to freestyle it a bit. The aim was to end up with a warming and spicy octopus stew. I think I nailed it…
Firstly I used the mackerel heads and bones left over from last night’s dinner, and added these to a pan with the leek offcuts, a carrot, most of a celery spear, a few peppercorns, some flat leaf parsley and a bay leaf. I’m trying hard to be a bit more thoughtful and resourceful in the kitchen, using scraps and leftovers for new meals and hopefully throwing less in the composting bin as a result. After half an hour or so I strained the resulting fish stock, and returned to the hob to reduce. Time for a little dash of No.5 Umami paste to intensify the flavour. An hour or so from the start, the stock was reduced and ready for later use. Actually it smelled a bit unappealing at this stage, although it tasted ok in a subtle way, so I ummed and awwed whether to use it for the main dish.
On to the cephalopod action.These octopuses (octopii?) were pretty dinky and already had the eyes and beak removed, so they didn’t require much preparation. After they were thoroughly defrosted they were added to a bowl with a generous glass of red wine, some piri-piri, salt and pepper and a dash of oil, and left to hang around in there for half an hour or so. The skins took on a wonderful pinky hue from the wine, and the tentacles curled up slightly.
Meanwhile over at the stove I sliced a couple of red onions fairly finely and sautéed these for 25 minutes in the Le Creuset in some olive oil, then added a whole fat bulb of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped, and half a bulb of fennel, thinly sliced. Five minutes of sweating and stirring and I added a large orange pepper, sliced and diced into 1.5 centimetre squares. Then a very generous handful of parsley, chopped fairly lackadaisically, got thrown in and stirred around over a medium heat, before the drained octopuses got added to the mix. The whole thing then got 15 minutes or so to combine: the munchable molluscs shrank and let out their juices. All good so far.
In went a tin of plum tomatoes and a very generous squirt of harissa (not only do I love the taste of some judiciously added harissa paste but the classic packaging of Le Phare du Cap Bon scores highly on my design index, just lovely). Then the red wine marinade liquid, about half a cup of the fish stock, and five chunkily cut King Edward spuds finished the whole thing off.
Lid on, low simmer, half an hour or so. Lid off, admire the ever-shrinking octopus and increasingly lovely liquor, and a quick taste test. Cue mild panic as strong chili lit up my mouth, followed by afternotes of the veg and seafood. Had I overdone the peppery goodness and ruined the dish? I like a bit of spice but not to the point of overwhelming all other flavours, so I was a tad concerned.
Another hour simmering away slowly with the lid off to reduce the liquid and it was time to eat. Actually my stomach had been telling me it was time to eat for at least an hour, but I’d read that octopus needs a good long slow cook to match the soft silkiness of the stuff I’ve had in good Spanish and Portuguese joints, so I held off. Begrudgingly.
I poured a glass of wine (a Sicilian Shiraz Rosé which proved to be a good choice) and spooned a little of the stew onto my plate. The potatoes were soft and everything glistened and smelled divine. The first mouthfuls thankfully proved that the generous helpings of garlic and harissa were better judged than I’d thought before. Several helpings later I’d decided that I’d knocked up a helluva dish, and I glowed gently from a perfectly balanced range of flavours and textures. Rest assured, this will definitely be cooked again. Right now, I’m just looking forward to having the rest for lunch tomorrow…