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Octopus

July 18, 2010

see? not scary.

I wanted to get an octopus painted on my son’s wall before he was born. “Don’t you think that might be scare a baby?” asked my therapist. No, no, no, don’t you see? It would be smiling, and possibly winking. It might have a hat on, plus all those cheerful legs? No baby of mine would be scared of something so delightful as an octopus.

However, I am now remembering another comment the therapist once made about octopus. On the occasion of my husband turning 40, I decided to have a party at which an octopus salad would be a guest star. So in my laundry list of things I was telling her I did one week, I mentioned “taught myself to cook an octopus.”

She was lamenting my myriad responsibilities and said that she thought that cooking octopus was definitely something I could cut out of my schedule. This record of negative octopus comments leads me believe that she must be

a) afraid of octopuses
b) predisposed against them for a reason other than fear, like hatred, but I think that any therapist worth her salt would agree that most hatred is rooted in fear
c) secretly an octopus dressed in the ironed trousers and tasteful jewelry of an Upper West Side lady

Whatever her issues are, I feel about octopuses the way I feel about most animals: they fascinate and delight me when they are alive, and once they are dead they sure are delicious. I love octopus when cooked into a Turkish casserole with cheese, or sliced with oil in a cool salad, or grilled in the Greek way with a nice char and some lemon, or with garlic and white beans.

I love octopus but I also love Brooklyn, which, with the exception of a J. Crew store, has everything! Everything, even a store called the Octopus Garden, which is an speciality octopus retailer. If you are looking for it, don’t look on Bay Parkway, because if you take the bus all the way out there, eager with your fistful of madmoney ready to spend on a new friend or two, you will be disappointed when you learn that the Octopus Garden has moved to Avenue U.

This was a project that I undertook before I had a car. So on the bus to Avenue U, I considered all of the conflicting advice about cooking this creature that has a reputation for being . . . stretchy. And bad texture sends taste out the window, so I was admittedly nervous in my quest to get a meaty and pleasantly chewy guy ready for my guests, and leave the elastic complaints to the squid-eating community. (Of which I am also a card-carrying member, of course.)

There are all sorts of theories on how to get octopus to not be chewy. Greek fishermen, I’ve heard, slam them against a wooden dock again and again. Some people boil it with a cork and swear that that’s the secret. “Simmer it slow,” some say. Others advise quick cooking to keep it tender. If you freeze it first, that will make it easier to chew. “Boil it twice!” I think that someone also recommended an ice bath to me.

Finally I came home with two gray but soon to be purple betentacled cephalopods. I referenced this video for the cooking of the octopus, though I admit to having gone in a different direction with the dressing. But it was very easy and they were delicious as part of a Spanish extravaganza.

It remains one of my favorite animal proteins. I had a surprisingly simple but memorable presentation of octopus last night, at relatively new wine bar in our neighborhood called the Castello Plan. Somehow, the idea of a wine bar doesn’t appeal: I think I picture sitting on a stool and having too many different sorts of wine and not enough to eat. Also, I have a child whose primary hobby is to demand to drink whatever I am drinking, and his secondary hobby is knocking over wine. But I have to say: I left the kid at home and went with my friend Jennifer, and this was really sort of a perfect outing.

Air conditioning! Chilled red wine! Charcuterie! Adult conversation!

Four cheers. Jennifer and I ordered some spicy cured pork shoulder, a raw Swiss cheese, the pickle bowl, a cucumber salad, and a plate of duck confit. I’d recommend any of these thing except the pickle bowl, which was a perfectly respectable plate of pickles, and was only disappointing in the lack of variety: it was a lot of cuke, whereas we were hoping for something a bit more varied and unusual.

We were also drawn to a part of the menu called “conservas.” The options were mussels, sardines, cod liver, and octopus.

We chose the octopus and were brought a wooden board with a dab of red stuff (tomato paste), a dab of bright yellow stuff (mustard with chopped chives), some preserved lemon slices, shards of green onion, sliced bread, and the pièce de résistance: the octopus.

Except: there it was! Sitting in a can, all chopped up. Well, an ovular tin, with the lid pulled back halfway. “How incredibly novel!” we thought. A place on Cortelyou cans its own octopus! Like that place on Newkirk that made its own butter! Or wait, is this some sort of commercial preparation with the label removed? Am I on candid camera and being watched for my reaction to getting a can of octopus in a restaurant? Is this genius, or a rip-off?

Suffice it to say, any kitty on earth would have gone nuts over this treat (which did end up being pre-canned), but so did we. Perfectly tender, in slightly garlicky oil, these tender chunks on a slice of bread with tomato, mustard, onion, and pickle(d lemon): wait a minute. The condiment combo reminded me of something, and I hesitate to tell you what.

It was sort of like an open faced fast food hamburger with octopus rather than that horrible, horrible beef. But it was excellent, plus the lemons were just the absolute perfect complement. It was clever, delicate, perfectly delicious, full of protein, and frankly, will be a great change from tuna as a pantry favorite.

The next time I shop, I’ll be looking for some cheap and cheerful Goya or Del Sol canned octopus to dress up with lots of nice condiments.

Yay Castello! Great service, too, and homemade chocolate bark for dessert. On the binary scale of thumbs up or thumbs down, this is a definite thumbs up.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 5:18 pm

    Bring your therapist a can of octopus next time you see her, and observe how she reacts!

  2. July 19, 2010 1:37 am

    I think we should all give all our therapists cans of octopus this very week and report back here about how it went over.
    Also I will be investigating these cans of octopus my own self because we are all very fond of fishy things in cans. I choose wild salmon, the kid likes kipper snacks, and even the pet rats get a smoked oyster each on Saturday nights. My husband likes something too but I can’t remember what. Maybe it’s octopus!

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