Cooking Octopus: Untangling A Daunting Process With Help From Philly Chefs

It’s important to note that octopus has a lot of water weight when raw, and that water is sucked out when cooked, no matter the method. This is why most chefs prefer larger varieties: you can cook them until tender and still have something to show for it. But I knowingly chose learning the hard way going into this.

The skin of my boiled octopus took on much more of a dull brown color—in contrast to the nice purple of my sautéed version. I chopped off the legs and served them atop thinly sliced cucumber and a nest of shaved carrots, surrounded by a mixture of tamari, black sesame seeds, chili and sesame oil. I added nori strips to garnish. It was a nice little plate. Much less chewy. Overall though, boiling the octopus stripped it of its mass as well as much of that nice oceanic flavor.

For the grill, I did two different versions. One, I marinated raw with lemon juice, basil, black pepper, lemon salt, and olive oil. I double-bagged the octopi and then pounded the crap out of them with a meat mallet for a solid five minutes. The second, I boiled for just three minutes in a blend of white wine and salted water, then stuck in a bag with a chimichurri marinade. I let both bags sit overnight in the refrigerator.


Jacki’s boiled octopus with sesame oil & nori. by Jacki Philleo.

Since we’re talking baby octopi, I skewered them to keep them from falling through the grate. The raw ones were harder and messier to skewer. When first hitting the heat, it was a challenge to keep the legs from curling around the grate and getting stuck. Since the heat is so direct on one side, the individual legs curled at different rates, leaving each octopus, as a whole, a little contorted. When the tips of the legs were nicely charred and crunchy, and the heads had good color, I deemed them done.

I had also grilled some lemon slices and a red pepper, which I sliced thinly after removing the blackened skin. I sautéed chopped garlic in a good bit of olive oil, then added the pepper, baby spinach, chopped olives, salt, juice from the grilled lemon, and small parcooked bow pasta, tossing them all together over the heat. This was by far the most flavorful of the four approaches I tried. Salty olives, sweet pepper and sour lemon worked great with the big flavor of the grilled octopus. Unfortunately, the octopus itself was the chewiest yet. Despite my ruthless pounding away the day before, I was unable to alter that formidable texture.

Luckily, I got it “right” with the final batch—the one that was boiled for three minutes. The quick hot wine bath before grilling seemed to do the trick. Because they were firmer from the boil, they were easier to skewer, maintained their shape and had less of a problem sticking to the grill. Alongside the octopus, I grilled some Halteman Family bacon from The Reading Terminal Market. When they were sufficiently colored and crisp at the tips, I cut the legs off and served them over a chimichurri yogurt sauce with lime zest and the bacon crumbled on top. These were the most tender. And, as I found out later while talking to chefs, boiling with aromatics before grilling is a pretty trusted way of getting a tender end product.

Nicolas opened the new Tria Fitler Square location with an octopus dish on the menu. The octopus she cooks is Spanish, braised for hours in red wine until tender before getting a char-grilled finish to emphasize the “meaty flavor.” The texture is incredibly soft and light.

“Our dish has a nice balance of acid and brightness from the yogurt dressing. But we add a little heat from fresh chiles, sweetness from plumped raisins, and herbaceous notes from mint and parsley. The dish hits all notes on the palate,” says Nicolas.

Tria Fitler Square. Octopus. Philadelphia.

Braised Spanish octopus at Tria Fitler Square. by Jacki Philleo.

A good thing, too, since the location on 23rd and Pine formerly housed the second Dmitri’s, renowned for their grilled octopus. A visit to the original Dmitri’s, on Catharine and 3rd, shows why.

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