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Summer in Italy, to Italians, means time spent by the sea, browning in the sun, long evening walks to the local gelateria, and eating fresh seafood. If you don't already live by the sea, it's the escape plan for most city-dwellers.
Octopus and potato salad, polpo e patate, is a favorite dish all along the Italian coast. You can find it in practically every Tuscan and Ligurian port. And it's just the thing for beating the warm weather: You can prepare it the night before, maybe the only time cool enough to cook in the kitchen, and the next day you'll be thankful that you already have lunch ready when you come home from the beach, starved.
There are many, many ways Italians will tell you to cook an octopus, with plenty of tricks and secrets to getting it meltingly tender. The most famous is to boil the octopus together with a wine cork, an age-old tradition that the majority of home cooks don't like to deviate from (my brother-in-law's nonna won't ever try making it any other way). The myth appears to have come about because polpari, or octopus vendors, along the ports of Puglia and Sicily were known to cook octopus in the open in huge vats of boiling water, with a cork tied to each one so you could easily pull them out. Somehow people began to believe that it was the corks ensuring tender octopus and not the slow, long cooking.
Others swear by vinegar, sea water, or pummelling the beast (or bashing it on a rock) to break down the fibers before putting in the pot. But a very wise, easy, and guaranteed tenderiser is to simply freeze the fresh octopus the day before you want to cook it and then defrost it. Freezing also breaks down the fibers, ensuring a wonderfully tender result every time. I also like to let the octopus simmer in its own juices, helped along by just a glass of wine, rather than boil it in a pot of water.
The general rule with octopus is to either cook it very little (flash searing) or cook long enough that it gives way and becomes incredibly soft. If you have a larger octopus, 45 to 60 minutes usually suffice. But baby octopus cooks in a much shorter time—20 minutes can be plenty.
Once cooled and chopped into pieces, it makes the delicious salad with potato, thinly-sliced celery, a handful of parsley, and a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Eat it warm, at room temperature, or chilled—my favorite way on a hot day.
- 2 pounds (1 kg) octopus, cleaned
- 2 medium-large potatoes, washed but unpeeled
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) dry white wine
- Handful of parsley leaves, chopped finely
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 stick of celery, thinly sliced (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Share your own octopus cooking tips in the comments below!