I bought an octopus this week. It was something I’ve eaten before, in the South of France with lots of garlic mayonnaise and a selection of other fruits de mer so seeing them on the fish counter in Morrisons 300m above sea level in the middle of the Peak District was a bit of a surprise. But with supermarkets dealing out commitments to sustainable fishing at quite a pace, I suppose it’s good to see some progress (My local supermarket in Plymouth, of a similar size, failed to have a fish counter, and gave an incredibly limited selection of fresh fish, but fishcakes of every flavour imaginable.).
A 400g octopus cost a little shy of £2 and after a bit of simple preparation yielded enough meat for 4 people. I could have all the unnecessary bits removed in store, but decided to tackle it myself – I feel that some basic fish preparation skills are something I ought to acquire! With the exception of the beak and the contents of the head, the whole octopus is edible and is almost pure muscle. It’s unsurprisingly very similar to squid but with a little more firmness, though for the more squeamish, the majority of the meat is in the tentacles rather than the body!
As far as cooking goes, there seems to be a lot of confusion as to how best to get an octopus tender. Generally, slow cooking is advised but times range from 40 minutes to 5 hours. Then there are debates on using salt or vinegar whilst cooking. Plus the more romantic images of Mediterranean fishermen beating octopus against rocks to tenderise them, or hanging the octopus out in the sun. There was general consensus that freezing is good for helping to tenderise the meat, but otherwise little else: Asian recipes actually cooked the octopus very briefly, much like squid (and Morrisons’ website also recommended a quick frying as well as a slow braise).
Seeing as I had far more meat than I needed, I’ve got about ⅔ of the meat in the freezer and pan fried the rest for a simple Asian-inspired noodle salad. I cooked the octopus for no more than 2 or 3 minutes, cut onto 4-5cm lengths and it was certainly cooked adequately enough. Because of the tapering of the tentacles, whilst the thicker top pieces were cooked well, the thinner parts were a little more rubbery (but not inedible) so I would recommend cooking pieces in batches of equal size sections.
While talk of suckers and tentacles might be off putting, I think octopus lends itself quite nicely to dishes like this noodle salad; it has a large surface area to become coated with a dressing. You could of course use cold-water prawns, squid, mussels or something more extravagant like tuna, swordfish or white crab meat. The crispy seaweed is optional, but the crunch it adds is worth it!
For the dressing:
For the crispy seaweed:
For the crispy seaweed, heat the oil in a wide pan until very hot. Add the seaweed and keep moving it around the pan for 2-3 minutes – the colour should lighten slightly it will begin to crackle and spit a small amount. Add the sesame seeds and continue to stir for another thirty seconds until the seeds begin to colour a light golden brown. Remove from the pan and sprinkle the seaweed with the sugar (it sounds like an odd combination, but it works to balance the saltiness of the wakame). Set aside to cool – this can be done well in advance and stored in the fridge relatively indefinitely.
To prepare the dressing, combine all the ingredients together and set aside. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to packet instructions, typically around 3 minutes but maybe longer. When the noodles are ready, drain them and divide between two bowls or plates. Toss the noodles with the dressing along with the carrot and chilli.
Heat the remaining cooking oil in a frying pan and cook the octopus very briefly – about 2-4 minutes depending on the thickness of the pieces – until the skin has turned red and the meat can be pierced easily with a knife. It may he easiest to cook small amounts at a time or batches of similar sized pieces. When cooked, divide the octopus between the two plates and toss through the noodles. Top with the spring onion, a sprinkling of the seaweed and a pinch of lime zest. Serves two.