I’ve cooked with squid for years, but in really simple dishes like fish stews, deep-fried or as a garnish for other seafood. This was my first attempt using octopus as the main star of a dish. I went into it with trepidation, but in the end, I was very surprised.
I bought these frozen, pre-cleaned, baby octopus from my fishmonger. They’re not labeled or pre-packaged, so I think he gets them in fresh in bulk and then bags them and freezes them at the store. I’ll ask him about the source next time I’m in-
The dish is a combination of recipes—my own tomato sauce, (taken from the Time-Life series Foods of the World-The Cooking of Italy), and Mario Batali’s recipe for “Squid from Santa Lucia’s Port, (Calamari all Luciana). I chose baby octopus rather than squid and I selected bucatini pasta because I wanted something in the shape of spaghetti, yet heavy enough in texture to stand up to a thick and spicy tomato sauce.
I intentionally chose a recipe that called for using a “cork” to soften the octopus. I wanted to see if the old wives tale was true—that cork has natural properties that tenderizes octopus. The recipe calls for boiling the octopus in water with a good dose of red wine vinegar. I suspect that’s the scientific proof, not the cork. The acid element in vinegar is most likely what tenderizes the octopus. (At least it made me feel like I was following some sort of authentic method).
The first part of the recipe sounds scary-“simmer the octopus for 50-60 minutes until tender.”
Baby Octopus in Spicy Tomato Sauce with Bucatini-
2 pounds baby octopus, cleaned, tentacles cut off body and bodies cut into 1/2” wide rings
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 used wine corks
Fill a large deep pot with water. Add the vinegar, and the wine corks and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and add the octopus. Cook the octopus for 50 minutes. Drain the octopus from the water and allow to cool. At this point you can refrigerate the octopus in a covered dish until ready for service.
After nearly an hour in a hot water bath-
Some of the sauce ingredients and the dried Italian bucatini-
Tomato Sauce, Day One-
2 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 cups canned, diced, San Marzano tomatoes
3 tbsp. tomato paste
2 tbsp. minced fresh basil
1 tbsp. minced fresh oregano
1 tsp. sugar
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft yet not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, oregano, sugar and salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and partially cover the saucepan. Cook the sauce for 1 hour.
Pour the sauce into a blender or food processor and puree. The sauce can be kept covered and refrigerated. At this point I kept the octopus in the refrigerator overnight. I had no clue as to whether it was going to be soft and tender or bounce like a super ball.
Tomato Sauce, Day Two-
4 tbsp. olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. dried red chile flakes
2 cups tomato sauce
½ cup dry white wine
1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley
On the day you’re ready to use the sauce, heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and once it’s warmed, add the garlic and the chile flakes and cook until the garlic just starts to turn brown. Don’t let the garlic burn. Add the tomato sauce, the wine, and the pre-cooked octopus. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the sauce, uncovered, for another 30 minutes.
And the octopus braising in the pot for 30 minutes-
While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the dried bucatini pasta and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. (I happen to prefer soft pasta to ‘al dente.’)
Drain the bucatini, reserving some of the pasta water. Turn the bucatini into the octopus in tomato sauce and toss to combine. (You can add pasta water to thin the sauce at this point). Stir the pasta and sauce into a serving dish, garnish with some of the octopus and chopped Italian parsley.
The final dish, Baby Octopus in Spicy Tomato Sauce with Bucatini-
The octopus was tender yet had some “chew” to it, akin to a properly cooked razor clam. The sauce, fiercly redolent of garlic and the heat of the chiles, was a perfect match for the octopus. A wimpy white wine sauce wouldn’t have stood up in this dish. The bucatini was a bit too thick, spaghetti might have been a better choice. But all in all, a very good dish for a novice attempt at cooking octopus.