Octopus: Don't be afraid

Cooking from afar can at times seem like overhearing an unknown language or watching an advanced martial art or accidentally walking into a calculus class. Enter the octopus. The lurking deep sea creature whose key to deliciousness and tenderness requires a copper penny, a wine cork, or a beating against rocks while standing in shallow water.

It turns out, octopus is really quite simple. It requires two steps: 1. simmering the octopus with tasty aromatics for a couple of hours and then 2. searing or grilling to crisp and serve.

When it comes to step one, the world is your oyster (or octopus). Start by adding a bit of olive oil to a large pot, then sweat some delicious flavoring agents in that oil. Onions, shallots, garlic, carrots, celery, leeks, chiles, orange slices, herbs, peppercorns - the possibilities are endless.  I like onion, garlic, celery, and orange peel. Then pour over a cup or two of dry white wine simmer for a minute and add enough water to the pot so that when you add octopus they will be covered. Bring that mixture to a simmer and add a hefty handful of salt. 

Bring on the octopus. This technique will work for any size octopus, but a 3-5 pound octopus is what I prefer. If the octopus you are using is bigger or smaller, adjust the simmering time longer or shorter. I remove the head from the octopus for this preparation, it's the tentacles that we are after. You can ask your lovely fishmonger to handle this step if you are squeamish. Drop the tentacles into the simmering water and check back in an hour or two. Stick a pointed knife into the thickest tentacle you can find and if it doesn't fight back, you are good to go.

All that's left is the crisping. Heat up a cast iron pan (or a grill) and add some oil and open the windows.  A little salt and pepper is all you need. Sear until crispy and golden. Enjoy with beans, salad greens, or a vinaigrette or garlic mayo. 

See? Nothing to be afraid of here. 

Crispy Octopus

Crispy octopus

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, rough chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 celery stalks, rough chopped
  • the peel and juice of one orange
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 3-5 pound octopus, head and beak removed and tentacles separated
  • Salt and Pepper

Preheat a pot large enough to fit the octopus over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, and celery. Sweat the vegetables until they are softened (about 10 minutes). Add the orange peel and juice along with the wine. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add enough water to cover the octopus tentacles. When simmering, add a handful of salt and the octopus. Simmer for an hour and fifteen minutes and then check the octopus with a sharp knife. You should feel almost no resistance.

Carefully pull the tentacles out of the pot and let drain and with paper towels, wipe away any "skin" or bits from the octopus. Heat a cast iron or heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil and when it is nearly smoking, season the tentacles with salt and pepper and add to the hot pan. Let the tentacles sear on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Adjust the heat to keep the sear at a nice even tempo. Use tongs to flip and move the tentacles as each side becomes crispy. Remove from the pan and enjoy hot or cool and slice for a salad.



Almost Spring Fusilli

creamy fusilli with bacon, peas and lemon   

I'm on vacation!

Some people call two days off a weekend, but in this business two days is damn near a sabbatical. When I'm on vacation, I like to cook and eat. So my wife Rachel and I invited my sister-in-law Jenny over for dinner and we cooked up some smoky, "almost spring" pasta. Dinner with Rachel and Jenny usually involves dancing, squealing, wine, and cursing - it's pretty much my favorite thing to do. 

Like all great pastas, buy the best ingredients and don't add too much. At it's core, this dish is bacon, bacon  fat, cream, peas, and pasta. You can veer a bit from there if you wish. In this case, I wanted bright and hopeful and for me, that's lemon and tons of black pepper. Tip for Chicago life: when in need of spring eat lemon and black pepper. 

Creamy Fusilli with Bacon, Peas and Lemon

Serves 4-6

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound thick cut bacon, diced
  • 1/3 cup shallots, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 pound fusilli pasta
  • 10 ounces frozen peas
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
  • salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. While the pasta water is heating up, preheat a large sauce pan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and the diced bacon. Render the bacon until crisp and remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towel. Pour off all of the remaining fat from the pan except for about 2 tablespoons (reserve the extra bacon fat for your eggs tomorrow). 

Return the sauce pan to medium heat and add the shallots and sweat for about 2 minutes, until just softened. Then add the garlic and stir until you can really smell the garlicky aroma, about 1 minute. Carefully add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate the bacon fond (caramelized bacon bits stuck to the pan) into the sauce. Simmer the wine for about 1 minute. Then add the cream and bring the whole mixture to a gentle simmer. 

Your pasta water should be boiling. Add salt to the water (it should taste almost like the sea). Add the fusilli to the boiling, salted water and stir. While the pasta is cooking, add the frozen peas to a fine mesh strainer and dip into the boiling pasta water to defrost. This should take about 1 minute.

Lift the strainer from the pasta water and drain well. Then add the peas to the simmering cream sauce and stir in.

Cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve a cup or so of the pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta, pouring off all the water. Return the empty pasta cooking pot to the stove over medium heat and add the drained hot pasta to the pot. Then pour the cream sauce mixture over the pasta. If necessary, add some of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to thin the sauce. Stir the pasta over medium heat for a minute or two to combine.

Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese and mix well. Then add the zest and juice of one lemon to the pasta and stir in. Then add half the rendered bacon and plenty of fresh cracked black pepper. Taste the pasta for seasoning and if necessary add a little salt. Again, adjust the sauce with some pasta cooking liquid if the sauce has become too thick. the sauce should coat the pasta but it should not be stiff.

Plate the pasta in bowls and top with the remains crispy bacon and drink with wine and the Brown sisters.