Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When an Octopus Comes to (Be) Dinner

I've gotten lots of intriguing invitations over the years to witness chefs doing what some would consider bizarre activities in the kitchen. But, I hadn't been invited to an octopus break down.

That is until North Park's Sea Rocket Bistro issued an invitation. Chef/partner Chad White had picked up about 20 pounds of local La Jolla octopus from Catalina Offshore Products and had grand plans for them. Some were headed to sushi heaven as "octopussy sushi" while others would be grilled and served with smoked cod Brandade, white peach romesco, roasted local almonds, and basil salsa verde. In the past, White's also used octopus in a seafood cassoulet that also included a tremendous skate wing sausage.

I had visions of some behemoth sea monster sprawling over the counter towards the stove of the rather small kitchen. So I was surprised to see these little three-pound creatures.

Male or female? Who knew? But they were fresh from the coastal waters just up the road and White was going to show us how he breaks them down, poaches them in a unique court bouillon, and then grills them for any number of dishes.

I videoed the first steps (my apologies for some blur--my first time using the video feature on my Canon 60D):

So, basically, you fold back the forehead and gently remove excess tissue on the top, remove the beak and then the eyes, which look like little pieces of tapioca.

And, what was this? Looks like we had a girl because White found an egg sack. And, don't think he's not going to figure out a way to use it.

Before we arrived, White had put together the ingredients for his bouquet garni: raw sardines, sliced serrano chiles, lemon peel and half a lemon, a bay leaf, parsley, thyme, and garlic.

He carefully rolled the ingredients in cheesecloth and tied the package with twine.

This would go into one of three boiling pots of water. According to an old fisherman's tale, to cook an octopus you first boil three pots of water. Dip the octopus into the first one for 10 seconds or until the water stops boiling. Then dip it into the second for 10 seconds or, again, until the water stops boiling. And the same with the third. Then return the octopus to the first pot for 20 minutes -- and add wine corks. They apparently help tenderize the octopus.

The octopus is then removed to drain and cool. Notice, the change in color from grey to red and the new curl to the tentacles.

White already had prepared a mixture of olive oil, parsley, and garlic. Once out of the pot, he sliced the tentacles off the octopus and tossed them in the herb mixture.

Now, it was time to hit the grill. These take no time at all to cook. You can add some smoked salt to the tentacles once they hit the grill to enhance the flavor.

Off the grill and into a bowl, where they're first tossed with some greens and then plated here for us into a gorgeous salad.

Spontaneous salad with grilled octopus, endive, arugula, mustard mayo, White's spicy tomato jam, and a squeeze of orange juice
I've seen a similar approach taken with squid--for they both need braising or poaching before grilling or else you get one tough sea creature--but the octopus show was particularly fascinating. Like biology class but with a delicious meal at the end instead of a pop quiz. The octopus has a slightly chewy texture with a sweet smoky flavor that's very appealing.

Sea Rocket Bistro will have octopus on the menu this week and when it's available. It is highly sustainable and you can't get more local than La Jolla.

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