Allow me to quote from my own damn menu, that I’d so cleverly sent out already to all the guests:
“A rich cioppino seafood stew, served in the Ironborn style on a trencher of bread, garnished with grilled kraken.”
Well, it happens that this wasn’t my first or even second idea. My bright idea, you see, which (once I’d had it) was fixed in my brain and no shiftin’ it, was to cook up some octopus. Get some big suckered tentacles on the plate or in the dish. How great would that be for House Greyjoy, whose sigil is the kraken? I mean, there’s not a lot of recipes for Architeuthis Dux out there, but octopus would certainly fit the bill for looks, wouldn’t it? Plus, a local Greek restaurant called Yiannis Taverna has (or at least had, some years ago) a nice octopus stew as an appetizer that I quite liked.
So I dived headlong into it. Out of a book of soups and stews I found a recipe for seafood gumbo, and I’ve always liked gumbo. So in place of one of the seafood ingredients I added some octopus. However, it was what you might call a fail. Octopus has a strong flavour to it, the skin has a tendency to dye the rest of the dish an unappetizing greyish-black, and the texture when cooked like that could most politely be described as rubbery. In the same way that Goodyear products can be described as rubbery. My girlfriend ate some and said that it wasn’t bad, exactly, but I thought it was so bad that I dumped the whole remaining lot down the toilet.
Try again, I cried! So the next time I tried a recipe for polvo, or Portuguese octopus stew. This sounded promising! It called for a little tomato sauce (good), and some sambal oelek chili sauce (also good), and octopus (good, and more or less the point of the exercise). However the end result was disappointing. It billed itself as a stew, but what I got could barely be described as a soup. Maybe a broth? It was pretty watery. Also, despite following the instructions with great fervour, the vegetables were pretty underdone too. And none of these flavours really seemed to go well with octopus. It seemed like they were either trying unsuccessfully to cover it up, or were just not complementary. I have no doubt that I could find a polvo I could love, but it wasn’t coming from this recipe.
Once more into the breach, dear friends! At this point I decided to just cut to the chase and make a seafood stew “by the book”. And indeed, the book had a tasty looking one that had been making come-hither eyes at me ever since I first saw it. So at that point I thought I’d make the octopus just a side, a garnish if you will. Now a sensible person would just give up on the octopus at this stage – it’s been relegated to a garnish now, like a sprig of parsley. How much effort is this really worth, you ask. But sometimes you gotta pick a hill to die on, and my hill was this damnable octopus. I was going to figure out a way to make it tasty if it killed me. And now it was merely a sideline. In the meantime, the stew had turned out quite well, so that was done. And I’m a sucker for bread bowls; just can’t get enough of them. I did a quick flip through the Clash of Kings and made sure that someone in the Ironborn sections of the book mentioned trenchers, and in fact they did, so I was home free. Best of all, the recipe calls for snow crab (Jon Snow crab?), and those come as little claws I could have poking out of the bread bowl. Definitely getting the sea monster vibe going here!
So at this point I began researching octopus recipes in earnest. There are many of them, and they’re all maddeningly contradictory. Slow cooking is essential, or ruinous. Wine/vinegar marinating is critical, or catastrophic. With a cork or without. And so on, and so forth. I did find a good looking recipe for Greek style octopus in my searches, but upon trying it I didn’t like the results very much. The long marinade in the wine provided results that weren’t particularly tasty to me; more overpowering. Also the texture was a bit dodgy. But the oregano and balsamic vinegar right at the end seemed like the way to go, and the serving with a squirt of lemon. After describing my intention to buy a whole whack of octopus and test various permutations at work, my boss found a helpful article on the New York Times in which the author had more or less done exactly that. He suggested that the key was to go “low and slow” – like a roast of lower quality meat, cook it for a long time at a lower temperature. After a few tries I discovered that combining these two gave me an octopus that was tasty, not rubbery at all, and still looked like a kraken. Success!
I got a pretty positive response for this, even from folks who had more or less said this wasn’t up their alley. In the end everyone tried it, despite its relegation to the garnish heap, and it met with great (and surprised) reviews. I grilled it on the Big Green Egg, which I believe added a nice wood-smoked overtone to it. I would recommend a wood burning fire, or some smoking wood chips on your barbecue, if at all possible.
Greek Style Grilled Octopus
If you want this as an appetizer (probably for the best), try and find a 4-6 pound octopus for 4-6 people. This will be a ½-lb. uncooked per person, which will amount to probably a ¼-lb. after cooking, but keeps the tentacle size big enough to see, cut, and stab with a fork. Alternatively (for the full-on kraken look), that tentacle in the picture is a little over 1½ pounds just for the one tentacle, which tends to come off one of the big 15-20 lb. beasties. It all depends what you can find.
- Sear the thawed octopus in a covered (oven-safe) pan for 5-8 minutes. (I like to think you’re ‘scaring’ some water out.) While this is going on you can pre-heat the oven to 200°F.
- Place into the oven at the aforementioned 200°F and bake for 4-5 hours. At the end of this time the octopus should be nearly covered in the liquid that has left the flesh.
- Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
- Take the tentacles out of the liquid. If you want to continue the cook the next day (which would be my recommendation after 5 hours), place into sealable bags and refrigerate until the next day.
- At this point, if you wish, you can reduce the liquid over heat until it thickens to a sauce. Just by itself it’s a flavourful, fishy, salty sauce and can be quite good, but probably only for the die-hard octopus fans. If you’re not ready for that yet, dump the liquid out.
- Before grilling, put the tentacles into a bowl and add enough olive oil to coat all the meat. Add about a third as much balsamic vinegar as that, and then cover liberally with oregano.
- Grill on the barbecue at around 350°F for 4-8 minutes per side. The key is to crisp up the skin; if it’s still “slimy” then your octopus will be unappealing no matter how good it tastes. Blacken it up a bit.
- Remove from heat and squeeze lemon juice over it. It’s now ready to serve.
You could give out lemon wedges with it, for those who wish to anoint their own portion further. Also, if you find you’ve dried it out a little too much, a dash more olive oil before the lemon juice is acceptable.
Rich Seafood Stew (Cioppino)
This is right from Company’s Coming: Stews, Chilies & Chowders by Jean Paré (p. 40). Though I added the notion of the sourdough bread bowls, because I really can’t help myself. Love love LOVE the sourdough. Also, purely for presentation purposes I went with snow crab claws, because that way everyone could have a claw sticking out of their bowl.
2 medium leeks (white and tender parts only, thinly sliced)
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup green pepper, chopped
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
3 cups whole small fresh mushrooms (or medium, halved)
14 oz. can of stewed tomatoes, with juice, mashed
1½ cups dry red wine
5½ oz. can of tomato paste
3 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. dried sweet basil
½ tsp. dried whole oregano
1 bay leaf
8 oz. uncooked lobster tail, cut into 1″ pieces
24 (8 oz.) uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1½ cups small bay scallops (about 10 oz.)
1 lb. king or snow crab, legs or claws, unshelled and broken into chunks
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
6-8 sourdough bread bowls
- Sauté leek, garlic and green pepper in olive oil and butter in large pot or Dutch oven until leek is soft.
- Add the next 8 ingredients. Stir. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover. Simmer for 1 hour. Remove and discard bay leaf.
- Add remaining 6 ingredients. Stir. Cover. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
- Hollow out sourdough loaves and serve.