Sunday, April 10, 2011

Octopus omelets

A number of years ago, my wife and I spent about a week in Portugal, staying in Porto. One of my two favorite memories from the trip was the Lello and Irmao Bookshop, without question the most spectacular bookstore I have ever seen. According to the entry for it in our guidebook, the shop was founded in 1869, and, architecturally, I would characterize it as a small merchantile cathedral. My words can’t begin to do it justice, but there is a very nice description of this local landmark by Elena, whose photos take me right back inside.

My other favorite memory of Porto was a dinner of roast octopus that was so good I had to go back to the same restaurant the next night just to have the meal again. Both times, we ate outside, overlooking the Douro River, just beyond the Ponte Luiz I, a magnificent iron bridge designed by one of Eiffel’s collaborators. Not health food, exactly, the octopus was drowned in butter and absolutely delicious, especially with a white port aperitif and a Portuguese sausage cooked on a little clay grill at our table with flaming brandy (we bought one of the clay dishes so we could make it ourselves at home; it’s a real conversation piece at parties).

Since then, I have often wanted to try preparing octopus myself, but it has a somewhat challenging reputation. In his octopus entry in The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that, except in the Mediterranean countries and the Orient, the consumption of octopus has been inhibited by several factors, including its “alarming or repugnant appearance,” and “perhaps also by the unresolved difficulty of deciding what its plural form should be (a difficulty which must have caused at least some people who would otherwise have bought two to ask for only one.)” Amusing – and amazing – as I find this suggestion, I must admit succumbing for a long time to one of the other reasons Davidson lists for avoiding octopus: “the need (notorious but in fact not always applicable) to tenderize the flesh before cooking.” Recently, our local Whole Foods Market featured baby octopus and the person at the seafood counter assured me that baby octopus was quite tender, in agreement with Davidson’s comments:

“A baby octopus needs no special preparation, but can simply be deep fried or cooked briefly in boiling water.”

The person who sold me four baby octopi (octopus? octopuses? Whatever.) suggested grilling them, which seems to be the most popular recommendation in the cookbooks I have that say anything at all about octopus. I took her advice and incorporated it into the octopus omelet recipe given below. (In fact, I was in too much of a hurry to make an actual omelet, so the dish is really more like “scrambled eggs with octopus and gruyere,” and while that doesn’t sound either as poetic or as appetizing as octopus omelete, the end result was delicious, if I do say so myself.  If you want to do it right – as I plan to the next time I make the dish – the scrambled omelette described starting on page 129 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 has worked very well for omelets based on other, possibly less exotic, ingredients.)

As always, in preparing a dish that features an unusual ingredient (especially one where I have limited experience), I like to pair it with flavors that are known to go well with it. Unfortunately, this is somewhat challenging for octopus, because there don’t seem to be a lot of recommended octopus pairings. My favorite flavor pairing book, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s  The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs does have an entry on octopus, but it is shorter than many of their other entries, and there are no bold-faced or capitalized recommendations to indicate “great” or “classic” pairings. Still, the authors do recommend sea salt, which seems natural enough, black pepper, olive oil, and onions, all of which I decided to incorporate (they actually recommend red onions, but I used a cipollini onion instead because I really like them). The sea salt I used was Sale Mediterraneo, a delicious mixture of sea salt with spices that include rosemary, sage, oregano, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. (We came across a jar of this while perusing the variety of great goodies available at the Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco during a visit there. A reasonable substitute would be a mixture of your favorite sea salt with an Italian seasoning mixture like Penzeys Tuscan Sunset.)

Octopus omelet, ingredients:

½ pound baby octopus (about 4 octopi)

½ cup aged Gruyere, grated

3 eggs

1 small cipollini onion

1 Tbsp olive oil

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp Sale Mediterraneo or other sea salt/Italian herb mixture


First, grill the baby octopus over a medium-hot grill, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Allow octopus to cool and cut into small pieces.

Next, sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Add the octopus, black pepper, and sea salt and sauté briefly, mixing well.

Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the mixture, stirring occasionally until the eggs begin to solidify. Add the cheese and continue to cook until done.

Serve with a good bread and a nice white wine. I had it with a Pinot Grigio and that worked nicely, but next time, I plan to try it with an Albarino, which I have found goes extremely well with seafood. Also, even though it is a bit of extra work, I highly recommend grilling the baby octopus before putting it into the omelet: the octopus picks up a nice smoky flavor that really enhances the dish.

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