Recipe: Polpo e Patate

I have a long-standing love affair with octopus. A huge seafood fan, it’s hard to pin down my “favorite” type, but octopus never disappoints. Hearty, fishy, and always flavorful, I’ve enjoyed eating this mediterranean delicacy many a-time, but never attempted to cook it myself…until I lived in Italy.

Once while discussing food (per usual) with an Italo-American friend, she mentioned that she had prepared herself octopus and potatoes for dinner the night before. Knowing that she was buying food from the same supermarkets as me and was living in a Milanese apartment without all the bells and whistles of an American kitchen as I was, I figured if she could make it, then I could make it. So my quest began…

After scouring Pinterest, YouTube, and way too many food blogs for instruction/inspiration, I devised my own version of an iconic Italian dish – polpo e patate. Let it be known that my way isn’t necessarily the “traditional” preparation…the little old nonne inhabiting the shorelines of Italy who’ve been cooking fresh-caught seafood their entire lives definitely have an edge over me (see below).

IMG_5758
This is Luigina Luzi – an unforgettable woman who graciously hosted me during a summer vacation to the seaside town of Porto San Giorgio, the place she calls home. She will out-talk anyone in the room and is definitely a better cook than you.

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 1 lb. fresh or previously frozen octopus
  • 6 cups fingerling potatoes (or any white potato)
  • 1 medium white onion
  • 1.5 cups fresh parsley
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • sea salt, black pepper, lemon juice to taste
  • 4 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

  1. Fill a large pot with about 12 cups of water. Salt generously and bring to a boil.
  2. Roughly chop the onion and throw it in the pot.
  3. While the water is boiling, prep your ‘pussy. Don’t be intimidated by it. It can’t hurt you. It’s dead. Click here for simple cleaning instructions.
  4. After removing the eyes and beak if they were present, rinse the octopus under cold water to get rid of any debris. While this tends to happen more with younger, smaller octopus and not with larger ones, you may get some of the animal’s ink on you during the cleaning process. Don’t be alarmed if this happens; the ink washes out easily and won’t stain any surface.
  5. Towel dry the octopus and spread the tentacles out on a cutting board. Lightly tenderize the tentacles using a meat mallet to prevent them from getting chewy as they’re cooking.
  6. Once the water is boiling, hold the octopus by the head over the pot. Dunk the tentacles in for about 3 seconds. Repeat this step twice more. When you do this, the tentacles will curl up almost instantly because they’re being shocked with high heat. Don’t freak out. The ‘pus is NOT coming back to life. “Scaring” the octopus in this way lets the tentacles curl up nicely and prevents the skin from breaking up during the cooking process.
  7. After dipping the tentacles in a couple times, carefully plop the entire octopus in the water. Reduce the heat to a simmer and leave the pot half-covered. The octopus will take about an hour to cook through depending on its size. There’s no need to stir or rotate it while its cooking. Feel free to poke at with a sharp knife after about 40 minutes to see how it’s coming along. According to my scientific calculations, once you can pierce it easily with a knife, it’s done.
  8. While waiting for the pussy to cook through, wash and chop the potatoes into 2-inch(ish) cubes. No need to peel them first.
  9. Give the parsley a rinse and allow it to dry completely before chopping it. The chopped pieces should be large enough so that they’re visible and recognizable, but small enough to chew and enjoy (they will be used as a seasoning to taste, not just as a garnish).
  10. Peel and mince the garlic.
  11. When the octopus is finished cooking, remove it from the water using tongs and set it on the cutting board to rest. Drop the potatoes in the same water that the octopus was cooking in. Return the water to a boil and cook the potatoes for about 15 minutes, or until soft.
  12. While the potatoes are cooking, cut the octopus tentacles and body/head into pieces that are about the same size as the cubed potatoes. I don’t really have a strategy for cutting the ‘pus other than separating the tentacles from the main body to more easily chop them. Then I hack away at the rest of it. Just get in there, don’t be shy.
  13. Drain the potatoes once they’re cooked. Salvage the remainder of the onion which will be extremely soft at this point. Set both aside with the octopus.
  14. Heat olive oil in the pot that was used for cooking (this dish is a one-pot wonder, people). Add the garlic. When the garlic becomes fragrant, add the potatoes, onions, and octo-meat. Next, add the wine. Season with salt and pepper and stir. Add about 1 cup of parsley to the pot and stir gently once more. Cover and let the flavors come together over a low heat for about 5 minutes.
  15. Plate the ‘pus and top the dish with the remaining parsley. Squeeze fresh lemon juice and drizzle olive oil over each serving as desired. Thank me later.

Notes about this dish:

As with any meal, the quality of the ingredients is key. Fresh octopus is always preferred, but I know it can be hard to come by outside of specialty fish markets. It is absolutely crucial, however, to use fresh parsley as opposed to dried. The taste between the two versions is most definitely noticeable, and since it’s the only herb being used, its flavor is critical.

Don’t go cheap on the wine. In addition to cooking with it, you can drink the same bottle with your finished product. My recommendations would be Falanghina or Verdicchio.

Fingerling potatoes are my personal favorite to use in this dish because of their soft skin and buttery-ness.  There is not an exact science to the type of potato used, as long as it’s starchy. Unlike the cooking process…

I’ve heard of octopus being boiled in many ways – over a rapid boil, a simmer, or over no flame at all (simply resting in the hot water). To get to the bottom of this matter, you’ll have to consult with an Italian who lives on the coast. I hope to God that I don’t offend any Italian readers with my version of this recipe!

It should be noted that this dish can be eaten hot or cold. Many Italians also enjoy adding chickpeas which creates more depth of flavor. Rosemary is another herb that could be used in addition to parsley, as it pairs wonderfully with seafood. I’ve also seen carrots and celery included along with an onion in the pot of boiling water, both of which are used as part of the final product.

This dish isn’t really labor-intensive so much as it’s time-consuming. The octopus is a big animal that needs time to cook. Patience is certainly required, but the result is worth it. Buon appetito!

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