Knives of Steel – Octopus Edition

I am blessed in that my coworkers are into food.  One of them, Ivana, is a very adventurous eater and has a much more interesting background with food than I do.  She was raised with traditional Jewish cuisine… something that I have no experience in.  Anyway, Ivana is an amazing cook. She is also kind of competitive, and always looking to broaden her horizons and try new things.  It’s great, because she pushes me out of my comfort zone sometimes in terms of things she brings in for me to try, like chicken liver knish.  Last week we arbitrarily decided that we should try cooking stuff we’ve never tried.  The agreement is that we both pick an ingredient that we’ve never cooked before, agree on them, and then make them.  For the first foray into our uncharted waters of cuisine, we agreed upon octopus, and chayote squash.

frozen octopus

Where to buy stuff like octopus and chayote squash you might ask?  Uwajimaya, our local Asian supermarket!  So off I went to Uwajimaya for some octopus.  They had freshly steamed octopus for $20/lb, but I am supremely cheap, and opted for the frozen, smaller, and less intimidating. I was feeling very intimidated.

defrosted octopus
Is it just me or does the opening between the tentacles look like a cat butt?

I did a little bit of web searching on how to cook octopus, to find that the general consensus on the internet is “cook it 3 minutes or 3 hours,” otherwise octopus has a tendency to develop a tire-like consistency.  I also read that it’s not really worth cleaning out the head as it’s pretty much just filled with gross goo.  So I didn’t.  I just cut that M-Fer right off.  Then I was left with what appeared to be the decapitated head of an alien?

alien octopus head
Its eye follows you, regardless of which way you step.  Go ahead and try it.  I’ll wait.

So I simmered it.  It was totally slimy and gross to touch, and smelled a little fishy.  I did not have high hopes for this dish.

cooking octopus

I put it in a pot with salted water, some black peppercorns, and a bay leaf.  I figured they might help mask the fishy smell of the beast.

cooking octopus

Also, do you know what’s worse than pasta water boiling over all over your stove?  OCTOPUS WATER BOILING OVER ALL OVER YOUR STOVE! Blech.  As soon as the octopus hit the water, I got to furiously searching just exactly how to cook it.  Some places said to put a cork in the water with no real explanation as to why.  So I added one.  One person said her Japanese friend told her that it just needs to cool to room temp as slowly as possible.

In case you’re wondering, yes.  I obsess about EVERYTHING.  So while the octopus was simmering away, I quick pickled some red onions.  Did I tell you what I was making?  Of course not.  I decided to make a spicy octopus salad with the chayote squash as well.  So there.  So I heated up some honey, a little apple cider vinegar, and salt with a little water in the microwave, then added the onions to it to sit for a couple hours while I figured everything else out.

quick pickling onions

Then after a mere 45 minutes, I was able to poke the octopus and have it yield fairly easily.  So I turned off the heat and let it cool for an hour or so before removing it to a bowl to cool all the way to room temp so it could be handled and sliced easily. Oh, and by the way… NO fishy smell.  It smelled of nothing.  I was very pleasantly surprised by that.

cooked octopus

While our fishy friend was cooling, I got to my sauce.  I kind of just started pulling things out of the fridge and pantry and adding them to the bowl until it all came together, but the approximate ingredients list was:

1 stalk lemongrass, quartered and smashed with a hammer
1 red chinese chile, thinly sliced
juice of 2 sad old limes
2 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp chile oil
1″ of ginger, grated on microplane
2 large cloves garlic, grated on microplane

spicy chile dressing

I let the lemongrass steep in the liquid for 45 minutes or so, then pulled it out and put the dressing in a jar to bring to work the next day.

spicy chile dressing

I also prepped the rest of my ingredients.  They included black mushrooms (that I soaked in warm water to soften), the pickled onion, 1 chayote squash, peeled and thinly sliced, and a few radishes, thinly sliced.

salad mixins

So there I was….trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this octopus.  I had imagined much thicker tentacles, and slicing them thinly on a bias, almost as you’d cut up zucchini coins.  It would be the perfect way to showcase the deep purple skin and the creamy white meat.  Unfortunately, I wimped out and bought teeny octopi (I never thought I’d ever use that sentence… ever).  So I did the best I could, making sure I got the maximum creepy effect out of the suckers.  In the end, I only ended up with like… 1.5 cups of octopus max.  We were both surprised at how much the octopus cooks down.  Everything got packed up and taken with me to work the next morning… except the cilantro that I was planning on using to give the dish a bit more green.  C’est la vie.

octopus on a cutting board
octopus on a cutting board

At work, around lunch time, we got our dishes put together.  For me, this just meant assembling my salad, a layer at a time on a pretty platter.  I totally chose a platter that looked vaguely like a clam shell on purpose.    The salad ended up being actually quite pretty.  It woulda been nice if the dressing had been a hair thicker, thus giving the salad a redder vibe, and I had actually remembered my cilantro, but overall, I’d say it wasn’t a bad plating for something that I wholly expected to be horrific.

octopus chile salad

Guess what?!?!?!?  It was actually pretty good!  It was damn spicy!  Well… I mean.. I am kind of a wimp, but it had some serious heat to it.  You could have easily omitted the chili oil (which was mostly soy oil!?) and been fine.  In fact, I intend to make this dressing again for chicken and veggies, and will not be using the chili oil again.  The “Chinese red chiles,” whatever the heck they are were PLENTY warm.

octopus spread

And Ivana’s dishes?  They were amazing.  I didn’t have the guts to try two separate dishes and have them both fail… My self esteem just can’t handle that.  Ivana knows that whatever she touches will turn to gold… like Midas.  So she went Portuguese and made a tortilla with the chayote and an octopus thingy to put on bread with a bunch of garlic and paprika and whatnot.  They were both fabulous.  So get out there and try something new!

Next challenges nominees so far are:
Beef or Pork Cheek
Frog’s Legs

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