Friday, June 10, 2011

Octopus Stew

715350_octopusThe title of this post could be a metaphor. It could, for example, describe America’s situation in the Middle East. But it’s not. This post is literally about octopus stew. If you have delicate sensibilities when it comes to food, you may want to skip this one.

Flashback #1:

A couple months ago a friend brought us several packages of seafood he’d flash frozen on his charter fishing boat in Mexico. I hadn’t cooked any of it before, but cooking is cooking. It’s an activity in which I feel generally confident and competent. Plus, I hate to waste food.

Flashback #2:

Once upon a time I was a localization program manager for Microsoft visiting Seoul, Korea for the first time. Our kind corporate hosts took the visiting U.S. team out for dinner. We went to a restaurant that specialized in squid. Up, down, all around: squid.

No doubt there were steamed greens and plenty of fermented kim chi, but I remember most the appetizer of fresh, raw squid tentacles.

And I mean fresh. Squid don’t have a central nervous system. When you cut off the tentacles, they don’t know they’re supposed to stop moving. So for twenty minutes or so they continue to squirm around – and off – the serving plate. The idea is to eat them before they stop moving.


Would it hurt them to whip around like that in a nice vinaigrette? Or even a simple squeeze of lemon? But no. Raw, plain, writhing tentacles it was. In the name of politeness I felt I had to try a bite or two. Plus, it was kind of a dare.

So I ate one of the inch-long sections. With suckers. That clung to my teeth. And flexed against my tongue. I was immediately tempted to just swallow it down and be done with it. But would you want squirming, flexing suckers that refused to die anywhere in your alimentary canal? No, you would not. Such things require, well, chewing.

I bucked up with a smile. And surprisingly I’m still willing to eat calamari – if it’s cooked. So, after that, how bad could octopus be?

But when our friend’s gift was defrosted I faced this:

061011 051

Yes: It really was as gross as it looks.

When I – who will eat raw eggs, chicken gizzards, bone marrow and glumpy green lobster brains, who seeks out leaf lard, beef tongue and harvests the weeds in her yard – saw those octopi eyes I kind of freaked out. Just a little.

For the next ten minutes there was a lot of muttering under my breath. “Ew.” Shudder. “Yuck.” Shiver. “Holy crap!” Chop, cut, avoid any parts I didn’t trust (like those wiggly, jiggly EYES), ignoring to the best of my ability the sliminess and how freaking hard it was to cut through the raw flesh. In the end, I had about a pound of chopped tentacles for the stew.

The house smelled like ocean for hours, as things simmered slowly in the oven all day. Ocean and licorice (from the fennel and anise liqueur). The octopus became very tender and cooked down to teensy pieces. I served the stew over saffron-Parmesan risotto with a garden salad.

The verdict: We’d love it if we lived in southern Italy and were used to seafood stews. But we don’t and we aren’t. It was good enough, but I don’t think anyone here will ever clamor, “Please, can’t we have octopus stew tonight?”

Now I need to figure out what to do with the abalone.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?


  1. I wouldn't have made it past the octopus on the cutting board. I would have stopped right there. You are one brave woman. I am not that adventurous when it comes to food. I have an aversion to weird textures (frog-eyed salad is high on my list of what not to eat--can't get past the little tapioca balls). My mom would probably say the strangest thing I ever ate was broccoli. :-)

  2. I am also not that adventurous. Based on the photo I would have discarded the cepholopods. However, 30 years ago I was in a sushi restaurant and did actually eat octopus raw. It was not great, just ok.