For octopus, trust your senses

Tips on choosing this eight-legged delicacy wisely and cooking it to perfection
By Christina Tzialla
Your nose is your best ally in buying octopus -- if it’s even slightly off, you’ll know about it.

The most usual variety found at fishmongers in Greece is the common octopus, which usually weighs around 3 kilos; a total of nine different varieties are found in Greek waters, but they vary only slightly.

A similar species, known in Greek as “moschi,” “moschoch-tapoda” or “kalamarochtapoda,” is usually smaller, cheaper (about 3 euros per kilo, compared to 13-20 for octopus) and doesn’t quite taste the same. The only way to really tell the difference is by looking at the tentacles -- a “genuine” octopus has two rows of suckers on each tentacle. But for some dishes, such as those with a rich sauce or octopus rissoles, their poor relations will do just fine.

You may have seen fishermen beating freshly caught octopus on a rock or the wharf -- at least 40 times is the rule -- to soften the flesh and then spinning it in the air to remove the red juice that would otherwise spoil the flavor. In fish markets, this is done mechanically, but when time is of the essence, it might have been done hurriedly or even not at all. The only way to tell is by feeling the tentacles -- they should be firm and the ends curly. If the flesh is too soft, however, and the tentacles hang limply, then it either hasn’t been prepared properly or it is a female that has just produced young and won’t have much flesh.

Another trick is one used by fishermen -- grab two tentacles that are side by side and pull. If the membrane at the point where they join tears easily, then the octopus has been well beaten.

Fresh or frozen doesn’t really make as much difference as the country of origin. According to gourmet chef Lefteris Lazarou of the Varoulko restaurant, frozen octopus from Morocco, Tunisia or the Atlantic isn’t as tasty as that fished in the Saronic Gulf or the Aegean Sea.

“Octopuses, like fish, get their flavor from the food they eat. The tastier the seabed, the tastier the catch will be,” Lazarou says.

If it has been frozen properly, there is no reason not to buy it if you can’t find fresh octopus. There are some cooks and fishermen who claim freezing helps soften the tissue. Shop at larger supermarkets to be sure they have been frozen and stored under the right conditions.


Keeping it simple on the grill

Choose a good-sized octopus of 1.5-2 kilos. After washing it well, cut each tentacle in two, and remove the very thin end as it will burn. First, lightly oil the octopus. Ideally, it should be grilled slowly over a low heat for 20-25 minutes on the barbecue or 10-12 minutes on each side in the oven. Make sure the grill is not too hot, or keep the octopus as far away as possible from the heat. Turn the pieces over so they cook on
all sides. The thinner pieces will be done first, so be ready to remove them. To ensure the flesh is tender, cut it into thin slices as soon as it is done. If desired, pour an oil-and-vinegar mixture over it. And if you really want to do it properly, take a tip from taverna owners, who hang the octopus out in the sun -- it makes them much tastier and they grill more easily.
Christoforos Peskias

Octopus souvlaki
Ingredients (serves 6-8)

1.5 kg octopus, cleaned
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns
1 small finocchio
1 unwaxed orange, preferably organic
90 gr green olives, stoneless (about 30 olives)
2 tbsp olive oil
For the marinade:
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves
or 1 tsp dried, crushed oregano

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the octopus in a baking dish to fit exactly, placing the tentacle suckers upward. Add the bay leaf and peppercorns and cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Allow to cool enough so that you don’t burn your fingers, but while it is still warm, take hold of the skin at the ends of its tentacles and pull upward carefully so as not remove the suckers. Cut the octopus in 2-cm pieces and place in a bowl. Cut the finocchio in half and then lengthwise into 1-cm slices and drop into boiling water for 4 minutes, then into ice-cold water and strain. Cut the orange into four slices and then quarter each slice. Take 16 large skewers and alternate a piece of octopus, a slice of finocchio and an olive, continuing in that order until most of the skewer is covered. Finish with a piece of orange.
Beat all the ingredients in the blender and pour into a rectangular baking dish. Place the souvlakia into the mix, turning them so they are coated on all sides. Leave to stand for half an hour in the marinade. Then strain, retaining the marinade in a bowl to use when serving.
Rub the souvlakia with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, season and grill on the barbecue or in the oven for about 32 minutes on each side. Pour the marinade over them and serve with a green salad or rusks with olive oil, tomato and capers.

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