Octopus Salad (Ensalada de Pulpo)
Have you ever tried octopus? It tastes a lot like calamari, just meatier, which makes sense given that octopus is sort of like a giant squid. One of my favorite dishes in the whole world is Mexican octopus salad, or “ensalada de pulpo”, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, and chiles. It’s fabulous as a side or topped over tacos or tostadas. It’s been on my list of things to make for years, but octopus isn’t exactly easy to find at the local markets around here. Lo and behold last week they appeared at the Whole Foods down the street, woo hoo! Thank you Whole Foods, for encouraging the adventurous among us.
Ensalada de pulpo is often made like a ceviche, the octopus “cooked” in an acidic marinade, without heat. For this recipe we are taking a different approach using a technique taught to me by Hank Shaw, who cooks and eats a lot of octopi. We are cooking the octopus, blanching it first, then slow cooking it in its own juices over a bed of aromatic herbs. The slow cooking without added liquid concentrates the octopus’ flavor, while the octopus absorbs rich flavor from the herbs. The slow cooking also helps cook the octopus so that the meat is tender (just a little chewy, like lobster), not tough. Then we chop the meat, and toss it with the other salad ingredients and a lime juice, cider vinegar, olive oil marinade, and chill it for several hours.
If you are using frozen octopus, unwrap it and place it in a large rectangular dish filled with cold water to defrost.
- One 2 pound octopus, cleaned*
- Several large sprigs of fresh oregano
- Several large sprigs of fresh parsley
- Several sprigs of fresh cilantro
- 1 cup seeded, chopped cucumber (peeled if the peels are thick and bitter, otherwise leave them on)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
- 3 green onions, sliced, including some of the darker green ends
- 1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and minced (test for heat, if really hot, only use a small amount)
- 1/2 cup (loose) chopped fresh cilantro, including tender stems
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 Tbsp lime juice
- 2 Tbsp cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 cups chopped, seeded tomatoes
*If you buy a frozen octopus, it has already been cleaned. If you have an octopus fresh from the sea, there are a few steps you need to take to get it ready to cook, i.e. removing the beak, the eyes, and the ink sac. See this video or this blog post for good explanations on how to do that.
1 Heat a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Place the raw octopus in the boiling water, return the water to a boil, and boil for 2 minutes. Then remove the octopus from the pot and place to cool on a sheet pan. Discard the cooking water.
2 Cut the octopus into large pieces, discard anything that doesn't look like meat (innards, beak, etc.) that somehow slipped by the cleaning process. Place the pieces of the octopus on the bed of herbs.
3 Prepare a bed of herbs (parsley, cilantro, fresh oregano) in a small Dutch oven or covered casserole. Place the octopus pieces on top of the herbs, cover and bake in a 250°F (120°C) oven for 1 3/4 hours, until tender (adjust cooking time for smaller or larger octopi).
4 Remove the pieces of octopus to a sheet pan to cool. When cool to touch, pull off any gelatinous bits that surround the pieces of the octopus that you don't want to eat. (It's a texture thing. If you don't mind the texture, don't worry about it, it tastes good.) You may also notice small round pieces of meat that sort of look like eyeballs. They're not eyeballs, but pieces from the octopus' suction cups on the tentacles. They taste good too, just like the rest of the octopus. Cut the meat into 1/2-inch pieces. You should have close to 2 cups of chopped octopus meat.
5 Place the chopped octopus into a large, non-reactive bowl. Add the cucumbers, red onion, scallions, cilantro, dried oregano, and jalapeño. Add the lime juice, cider vinegar, olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and stir to combine. Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight. Once ready to serve, stir in the chopped tomatoes.