My friend Martha is terrified of octopus (hey, happy birthday Martha!) and I don’t blame her. They're funny-looking, frighteningly clever and lurk about in the sea. But, they’re also irresistibly tasty, with a sweet, briny bounce that’s unlike any other seafood. And, more importantly, home cooks forget how easy octopus can be to prepare. Poached in salted water and left to marinate overnight, their fibrous tentacles soften and soak up whatever flavor is around.
At Recette, in New York’s West Village, Jesse Schenker cooks octopus this way, immediately transferring the hot, poached octopus into olive oil mixed with aromatics, encouraging the meat to suck up citrus and garlic notes as it cools overnight. The next day, he sears the tentacles and serves them on a graceful smear of pureed black garlic—an ingredient so full of complex, caramelized flavor, it’s basically cheating. The result is a sweet, tender, incredibly flavorful octopus. It’s the steak of the sea!
When trying this at home, keep your poaching pot’s thermometer between 190 and 200°F. (If you’re just using your eyes to gauge the temperature, like I do, that’s just below a true simmer—a steaming surface broken by the occasional hiccup of water.) Besides conquering your fear of cooking octopus, the best part about trying this technique is that all the hard work will be done the day before. The next day, when it’s time to feast, just pull your seasoned octopus from its marinade and sear in a hot pan. All your garnishes—a fresh fennel salad and umami-rich garlic puree—are in the fridge, ready to go. And get to it! As Martha says, “You have to eat the clever bastards before they eat you.”
Marinated octopus with fennel and black garlic
Adapted from Jesse Schenker, Recette
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course
For the poach
3 pounds fresh baby octopus
1 onion, diced
2 lemons, finely sliced
few sprigs rosemary
handful of salt
For the marinade
5 cloves garlic
2 lemons, juice and zest
2 oranges, juice and zest
1 generous teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
2 cups extra virgin olive oil oil
For the fennel
1 bulb fennel, finely sliced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
4 tablespoons marinade oil
crushed red pepper, to taste
lemon juice, to taste
salt, to taste
For the black garlic puree
1 cup milk
1 head black garlic
- The day before: In a large stock pot, add all the poaching ingredients. Cover with water and bring up to a very gentle simmer for 2 hours. Meanwhile, make everything else.
- Prepare the marinade by crushing garlic and mixing with citrus zest, juice, salt, pepper and olive oil. Set aside so it’s ready for the poached octopus.
- Prepare the fennel salad by tossing it with cilantro, marinade oil and a squeeze of lemon. If you have fronds on the fennel, you can mix those in as well. Set aside in the fridge for tomorrow.
- Bring the milk up to a boil then turn off the heat and add the cloves of black garlic. Allow to steep for an hour then strain out and puree in a blender (add a touch of water if you need to). Set aside in the fridge for tomorrow.
- Surely, by now, your octopus has finished poaching, yes? Strain it out of the poaching liquid and while it’s still hot, transfer it to in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag and add in all the remaining marinade. Seal the bag, pushing out as much air as possible so the marinade is covering all the octopus. Rest at room temperature for a half hour then set aside in the fridge for tomorrow.
- It's the next day! Hang out, open a bottle of wine, remove the chilled octopus from the marinade and trim the head. Sear in a very hot pan on both sides and serve. If you’re plating it fancy style, as an appetizer, spread a little black garlic puree on a plate with an offset spatula and layer tentacles and fennel salad on top (the body is edible but for a fancy presentation, you can always set it aside and make a ragu with it). If you're plating it family style as a meal, serve whole hot octopus topped with fennel salad plus some grilled bread, lightly smeared with the black garlic. Now, take a moment to celebrate: you've conquered octopus. You're a winner.