In deep waters
William Skidelsky finds that we underestimate the culinary attractions of the octopus
Octopuses, as the work of the American horror writer H P Lovecraft demonstrates (see the books section of last week's NS), have long been objects of fear. Known to early seafarers as "devil fish", these singular creatures have more recently been viewed as a sort of template for what an alien might look like. What with their tentacles, suction cups and unusual method of locomotion, it is not hard to see why. In real life, octopuses are solitary and highly intelligent animals which, among other abilities, can change colour in order to bamboozle predators. Another commonly noted skill is their Houdini-like powers: one often hears of octopuses in restaurant kitchens carrying out nocturnal raids on the tanks of their crustacean neighbours, leaving a trail of shell as the only incriminating evidence.
If in our imaginations we tend to inflate the powers of the octopus, our tendency is to underestimate its attractions when it comes to eating its flesh. Many people's sole exposure to octopus will have been as an element of those rubbery, vinegary seafood concoctions that are sometimes served as antipasti at Italian restaurants. Subjecting so multifaceted a beast to such a dreary fate is, I think, tantamount to a betrayal. Culinarily speaking, octopuses are highly adaptable. They can be eaten hot or cold; they can be cooked for a long time or not at all; they can be served on their own or as part of a stew, a risotto or a pasta dish.
Octopuses are not often found in British supermarkets, but any decent fishmonger will stock them. I enjoy watching them being disentangled from the ice, their tentacles trailing as they are transported across the shop. Check that they have been cleaned and that their "innards" - which is to say, their beaks and other extraneous head portions - have been removed (this will almost always be the case).
When it comes to cooking octopus, the conventional wisdom states that the meat must first be tenderised, in order to stop it feeling rubbery. There are various methods of doing this: bashing the octopus against a rock; dipping it three times in boiling water; adding cork to the cooking liquid; covering it in salt. In my experience, however, such measures are unnecessary. I simply chop up my octopus and cook it. The results have always been good.
As with its cephalopod cousin the squid, octopus follows a basic rule: it must be cooked either very quickly or very slowly. I generally prefer slow cooking, because it seems to produce the most meltingly tender results. The octopus's gelatinous skin - which melts when it is cooked for a long time - makes it ideally suited to rich, strongly flavoured stews. I cook it rather as I do oxtail, pairing it with red wine, onion, tomato, herbs and a touch of chilli. This I braise in the oven for at least an hour, and serve with either rice or pasta. It is a fitting tribute to this noble, misunderstood creature of the deep.