The Joy of Adventure Cooking
The other day on my way home, I stopped at the fishmonger's and bought some fresh octopus. All of this was out of character. I should have known that complications would ensue.
This was, I should note, a very upscale fishmonger. This wasn't a guy wearing an apron stained with blood, roe, scales and the occasional fully intact fish head. The store is just a little retail area in front of a super-swank seafood restaurant where you can spend something like $25 for a single oyster. If you order "clam strips," you get a plate with a dancing clam that literally takes its own shell off -- $275. We're talking fancy.
So anyway, I scanned the seafood offerings in the glass case, and I saw a little sign saying octopus was $3.95 a pound, which I would normally describe as "dirt cheap" except that, at this market, dirt goes for $6.50 a pound. I asked for a little container of octopus and was soon on my merry way, even though -- key factoid -- I never really paused to look at the octopus. I was too obsessed with price to waste time examining the actual "food" (the use of quotes here being ominous foreshadowing of what is to come).
Like most people, I was raised pretty much entirely on Fritos. As a grown-up, I usually cook big pots of manfood (chili, gumbo, stew), to the point that my friends say I'm a manfood bore and my editor says I can't write about manfood anymore. These are a bunch of celery nibblers who can't appreciate the drama, dare I say the pageantry, of the big pot. They don't understand how momentous it is when, after six hours of simmering, the flesh of the beef rib finally separates from [pausing here to clean up drool on keyboard] the bone.
But they're right; I need to branch out. We all do. Americans don't eat smart. We eat junk food loaded with chemicals produced in laboratories. Scientists can take some carbon and argon and helium and whatnot, and splice in an atom of plutonium, and make a molecule that registers on the tongue as "blueberry."
Feeling adventurous, I wound up going home with a little plastic container of wild-harvested octopus. The fishmonger had told me to tenderize the octopus by letting it simmer for 20 minutes in salt water. So I got out my skillet, added water and salt, retrieved from the refrigerator the plastic container of the still-unexamined octopus, dumped the contents into the skillet, and . . .
SHREEEK SHREEEK SHREEEK . . .
Six baby octopi!
I'm not sure what I expected my purchase to look like, but I assumed it would be chopped up, or rearranged or rendered in some fashion such that it would not be so freakin' octopoidal. When you order calamari, you don't get an entire squid. But it said right there on my receipt: "Octopus (baby)." These octopi were gray and limp, with fat heads and wiggly tentacles, and they were very small. Despite my initial shock, they were almost cute. Imagine how you'd feel if you ordered "rabbit" at a restaurant and the waiter brought you something with adorable, floppy ears.
I realize this is not as dramatic as eating, for example, fried grubs or medallions of squirrel or live monkey brains, which I think we can agree is a dish in which every word -- "live," "monkey" and "brains" -- deserves its own individual throw-up session. There are people reading this who cook octopus all the time and don't see why I'm fussing. Octopus is right there in The Joy of Cooking, complete with a wonderful passage by the authors saying that, before you cook an octopus, you should give it a decisive whack to make sure it's dead. But this was my first time. Scary. The key in such situations is to pretend that you're French. The French can eat all kinds of gross stuff. Abundant wine helps.
As the water heated, the tentacles began to contract. The water turned brown. This was proving quite aromatic. Naturally, I called all the kids into the kitchen and insisted that they examine the spectacle. They obliged with shrieks, yelps, theatrical revulsion. I realized that Horrifying Food might actually be even more entertaining than manfood.
After I simmered the octopi, I sauteed them with butter and garlic. It is a well-documented fact that anything, including shoelaces, is good when sauteed with butter and garlic.
The octopi became, at this point, more like food and less like oceanic organisms. They had become a singular: "octopus."
Served over brown rice, the octopus dinner was chewy, pungent, but delicious.
Which leads to an inspired thought.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.