Regular demo chef and food writer Jenny Chandler shares her pearls of wisdom when it comes to cooking this exotic delicacy
The history of the octopus is not only steeped in mythology—from the Akkorokamui of Ainu legend to the Kraken of Norway—but culinary heritage, taking centre stage in cuisines globally, from Spain to Japan.
Once the octopus has been fished out of the sea—the Mediterranean, if it’s from Furness Fish Markets or the Channel, as is often the case with those found at Shellseekers Fish and Game, whose fishermen dive to pluck them from the Dorset shores using naught but their bare hands—the first thing to do is tenderise it. “What a lot of chefs do nowadays is freeze octopus overnight for a minimum of 12 hours,” says regular Borough Market demonstration chef Jenny Chandler. “The freezing process seems to break down the flesh.”
In Spain, they cook the octopus in a manner that pays homage to its reputation as this most mystic of molluscs, preparing it in great big cauldrons of boiling water. “The chefs dip the octopus several times to shock it. It’s said to be another way of ensuring you don’t end up with the rubbery texture that badly cooked octopus sometimes has,” Jenny explains.
Paprika and olive oil
“If you go to local markets in Andalusia, rather than there being a hot dog stall or a stall selling coffee or doughnuts, there is usually a stall selling octopus, sliced up on little, traditional wooden plates and sprinkled with paprika and olive oil, which they’ll buy in the morning for their breakfast and eat as they go about their shop.”
The cephalopod has, says Jenny, quite a similar flavour to squid. “It’s got a kind of rich, nutty sweetness about it,” she enthuses. “It’s very subtle, so you don’t want to overpower it. It will just pick up other flavours.” Typically octopus is served simply, either with a traditional romesco sauce, grilled and served with a squeeze of lemon, or as a beautiful adornment to a Spanish-inspired salad such as Jenny’s charred octopus with piquillo peppers and butterbeans.
When it comes to preparing octopus, “it’s all about the tentacles,” she advises. Discard the head and cook the tentacles for 30 minutes at a high temperature with the pan at a vigorous boil, or “you could go for a long, slow method, keeping it on a low simmer.” With the latter, “there’s a lot more room for manoeuvre—you could leave it in the pan for anything up to an hour. Perhaps do one tentacle first as a tester, hooking it out and tasting as you go along.”
Either way, “what you are looking for is for the outside to become gelatinous and the inside to have a little bit of bite”—master that, and you have perfected this exotic delicacy.