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

The place is tiny, casual, no frills— an honest neighborhood BYOB that has been cherished for two decades. From what I gather, the food hasn’t changed much, mostly because it doesn’t need to.

Grilled octopus at Dmitri's (3rd & Catherine). by Jacki Philleo.

Grilled octopus at Dmitri’s (3rd & Catherine). by Jacki Philleo.

The octopus is grilled with the suckers removed, cut and placed on a plate with a light olive oil and vinegar mixture, a few olives and lemon wedges. It could fool you into believing you’re eating chicken breast and is blissfully simply. If you’re looking for classic Greek preparation like this, I would recommend also trying the octopus at Zorba’s in Fairmount.

On a less traditional route, there’s some new-school takes in Northern Liberties worth checking out. Rubinstein of Dos Segundos prepares a grilled baby octopus appetizer with a spicy Seville orange sauce. First poached in water with oil, herbs, and spices, the baby octopus is stored with salt and lime zest until grilled to order. “The bitter orange cuts through the spiciness of the sauce and gives it a bit of brightness,” Rubinstein says. Its big grilled flavors and heat goes well with a margarita, too, the zesty and salty flavors complementing one another.

Just a few doors down at Standard Tap, there’s another more newfangled take on octopus, in the form of a delicious bruschetta. Like Dmitri’s, the texture is tender and chicken-like, but in contrast to the Greek simplicity at the BYOB, Standard Tap dresses its grilled octopus up. Sous chef Eric Wagner explains: after being boiled to tenderness in a court-bouillon, the octopus is marinated for at least 24-hours, then grilled over a very hot grill to get just a few caramelizing char marks. It’s then sliced and served over a chopped mixture of cooked fiddleheads, local spring onions, sundried tomatoes, lemon, and a touch of vinegar on top of toasted bread.

Standard Tap Philadelphia

Standard Tap’s octopus bruschetta. by Jacki Philleo.

In 2013, a previous iteration of octopus (cooked the same way, served differently) was featuring on Diners, Drive-in’s & Dives. Wager says the restaurant will still get people coming in asking for octopus after a rerun. Since they focus on local and seasonal ingredients, the octopus dish frequently goes through little changes here and there, but the prep stays the same.

It all boils down to this, though: when trying to really understand the way of the octopus, ask someone who grew up eating it. I got to sit down and pick the brain of Greek native and Philadelphia resident, Panagiotis Alexiou.

In Greece, it’s not meant to be fancy or stacked up on a tower of other ingredients or dressed up with sauces.

“It’s more of a thing you want to eat next to the sea,” where, after being caught fresh and beat tender against a rock at the beach, it dries in the summer sun on a clothesline outside of your local restaurant, acting as an enticing advertisement to patrons and passersby. When ordered, the tentacles hit the grill for a nice char, and then get plated with a little olive oil and vinegar (just like at Dmitri’s or Zorba’s).

There is a cultural difference: octopus is a social food. “It’s kind of a specialty thing. It’s very tied with drinking,”

“Traditionally, you drink Ouzo,” an anise flavored aperitif, Alexiou explains. “Every time you order [the drinks] they bring you a little plate of different tapas, mezzes. Normally there’s a progression, so the more you drink the better things they bring you. So maybe it will start with like cucumber and tomato and some bread and cheese and eventually you’ll get to octopus and shrimp.”

So when octopus is served, it’s not the main event. It’s there, just as anything else on the table, as part of a larger experience. It’s about taking time to enjoy friends, conversation, and (quite a bit of) Ouzo.

“Its really hard to cook well, so it’s kind of a gamble…You might be cooking all day and then it’s not good. Most commonly, you will eat it when you go out and someone grills it who knows how to do it and is an expert.”

Perhaps my Greek acquaintance is right; because it’s such a challenge, maybe just leave it to the professionals. It’s true that in all my home experimenting, nothing was as good as what the chefs around town are preparing – but they’re usually investing several hours or even days into the preparation of this single protein.

But if we as home cooks didn’t like a little sport in the kitchen, we’d be bored out of our minds—or mired in complacency. What’s the enjoyment of cooking if not trying to prepare new things? When I picked up that package of innocent baby octopus in the frozen section at First Oriental Market, I didn’t expect it to lead down this road. But here I am, and I would do it again. Maybe I’ll buck up and try a larger one next time.

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