Last night I went to my friend Jeanne’s home for a themed potluck dinner that highlighted the cuisine from Sicily, Italy. When we got the invite, most of the other people signed up for the typical courses like pasta and dessert, so Jeanne said I could bring the salad.
When I think of Italian dinners, I rarely think of salads. There are vegetables, for sure, but I often think of them as sides or antipasti, often marinated in olive oil. So doing some research on classic Sicilian dishes, I couldn’t really find a salad, and it wasn’t really the season for tomatoes, otherwise I would have made a caprese salad.
But I did notice a lot of recipes for insalata di polipo, which is called an octopus salad but can be considered an antipasti. Octopus is popular in Sicily because of the coast and access to fresh seafood. And traditional seafood is often served simply with some olive oil, so this dish is boiled octopus served with lemon juice and olive oil.
For some heft, I added yukon gold potatoes. I like yukon gold for this recipe because they are tender like the octopus, but also hold their shape better.
The challenge can be in finding the octopus. I got mine at a specialty seafood store in Rockridge (and paying a hefty price) after striking out in Chinatown. If you can find it frozen, supposedly the freezing process helps to tenderize the octopus. Either way, when cooking the octopus, the main thing is to slow cook it at a simmer and to be patient.
Luckily, it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. It got to the right texture in about 1.5 hours. Octopus can sometimes seem slimy, even after cooking, so that’s why you rub off the skin and suction cups. But another tip is you can char it by either grilling it or searing it in a pan for a bit for some added smokey flavor.
My final dish turned out to be a nice light dish, and while the octopus was slimy to work with, it was pretty easy to cook. So if you ever had octopus at a restaurant and thought about making it at home, go for it. It’s not as hard as you think. Enjoy!
Octopus Salad or Insalata di Polipo
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 whole octopus (about 2 to 3 pounds)
3 to 4 small yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
3 T fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 T finely chopped Italian parsley
pinch of sea salt
The octopus will likely be cleaned when you buy it from a specialty fish monger or frozen, but if it isn’t, the main thing is to remove the “beak,” which is supposedly like a tiny bird beak in the head. Just use kitchen shears and cut around it to remove it.
Bring a big pot of water to a boil and then dip the octopus’ tentacles for five seconds and bring it out. This helps the tentacles curl to look like an octopus. Optional: Cut the octopus into parts, removing the tentacles. Then put all the pieces in the pot, reduce heat to a simmer (around medium low) and cook until the octopus is tender, about 1.5 to 2 hours.
In another pot, add sliced potatoes in boiling water and reduce to a simmer. (Add a teaspoon of salt to the water.) Cook until fork tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and let cool, then cut into smaller, bite-sized cubes. Set aside.
To test if the octopus is tender, cut a piece from a tentacle and try it. If it’s ready, remove pot from the heat and leave in pot to cool for about 30 minutes. Then drain water from pot and rinse octopus with cold water. At the same time, gently rub off the skin and suction cup parts. (This is a matter of preference. While leaving the skin and cups make it look like octopus, for me those parts were extra mushy, which was a texture I didn’t like. Grilling helps to make these parts more firm, but I didn’t have time to char the octopus so I rubbed off those parts.)
Cut the octopus into 1/2-inch pieces and add to potatoes. Then add olive oil and lemon juice to coat the octopus and potatoes, and then let sit for an hour in room temperature before serving. When ready to eat, sprinkle sea salt on top along with finely chopped parsley.
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