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In abundance, octopus inspires chefs to get creative

For years, we’ve been eating squid in restaurants, no problem—probably because it’s typically sliced up and fried as calamari—but for some reason, octopus, its cephalopod cousin, is just catching on across the country. “It’s scary looking for one—I think people think, ‘What do I do with this thing with tentacles?’” said Michele Ragussis, chef at The Pearl Seafood Restaurant & B
octopus
Today


Today

For years, we’ve been eating squid in restaurants, no problem—probably because it’s typically sliced up and fried as calamari—but for some reason, octopus, its cephalopod cousin, is just catching on across the country.

“It’s scary looking for one—I think people think, ‘What do I do with this thing with tentacles?’” said Michele Ragussis, chef at The Pearl Seafood Restaurant & Bar in Rockland, Maine, and a finalist on last season’s “Food Network Star.” “But the whole thing is pure intimidation. Octopus is healthy for us, it’s delicious, and you can do anything with it—it takes on flavor of whatever sauce or marinade you want to use with it.”

So if you haven’t tried octopus, which has a smooth, meaty texture, the time has come: Octopus imports increased by about 10.6 million pounds a year—nearly a 40 percent increase—between 2010 and 2012, according to reporting firm Urner Barry. Now, it’s having a banner season after an abundant harvest and it’s appearing on menus everywhere. Check out these top picks at restaurants, or if you’re really adventurous, try Ragussis’ recipe below.

Jose Enrique,San Juan, Puerto Rico

Octopus is nothing new in Puerto Rico, where it has long been plentiful and popular, but chef Jose Enrique is doing amazing things with it at his namesake restaurant, nestled on a nondescript street in San Juan. The chef, who was recently named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, offers creative, modernized Puerto Rican fare, like octopus carpaccio, or the current octopus dish, Spanish octopus with lardones, crispy potatoes, paprika, mayo and scallions ($14). Another recent offering was an adventurous take on arepas—corn patties topped with local octopus hugged by a generous sauce of chile, capers, tomato and cilantro. The octopus comes out just the right texture—slightly chewy without being rubbery—with a sauce that’s tangy perfection. “Octopus has the ability to range in texture from nothing in your mouth to a bit of chewiness, depending on the dish you’re going for,” he told TODAY.com. If you want to try one of Enrique’s octopus dishes closer to home, check out his recipe for Octopus Turnovers in the July issue of Food & Wine.

Fideo with Octopus and Kielbasa at Bar Ama.Today

Bar Amá,Los Angeles

At this much-buzzed-about spot in Los Angeles, chef Josef Centeno’s Fideo with Octopus and Kielbasa ($11) is a mainstay on the menu. The playful dish pairs fideo—toasted and simmered vermicelli noodles—with octopus, shrimp broth, tomato, pepitas and smoky kielbasa. Centeno says he draws inspiration from Spanish, southern and eastern Mediterranean, and Japanese cooking. “Octopus is an important ingredient in many cuisines—it can take a lot of flavor. Garlic, smoked paprika, vinegar, and strong spices all go really well.” But he warns, “It is delicate and needs to be treated with care. It’s easy to under or over cook it.” 118 W. 4th St., Los Angeles;

The Woodsman Tavern, Portland, Ore.

At this rustic spot, which recently appeared on “best of” lists for both Esquire and GQ magazines, chef Jason Barwikowski says his Marinated Octopus with Oregano and Capers ($8) flies out of the kitchen on a nightly basis. Every week, the chef goes through 70 pounds of octopus, which he slow-roasts, then marinates with red wine, paprika, oregano and other spices. Barwikowski, a Michigan native, says the dish is an homage to the ones he grew up eating on visits to Detroit’s Greektown, and he’s even experimenting with possibly adding an octopus terrine to the menu. “Across the board, people are willing to try more things nowadays,” he says. “It’s a fun time to be cooking professionally.”

Fish Bar, mk The Restaurant, and Ada St.,Chicago

Depending on which restaurant you eat at in the Windy City, you can try several of chef Michael Kornick’s spins on octopus—you can get it a la plancha at Fish Bar, grilled at mk The Restaurant, or pan-seared at Ada St. The initial cooking process is crucial, he says—he often oven-poaches octopus in olive oil or poaches it in wine or bouillon or braises it. But if that sounds like too much for you, be happy to sit back, relax and let chefs do all the work, he says. After all, “People choose restaurants for many reasons—[one being] for the foods they cannot make at home.”

Charred octopus with bell peppers from RM Seafood.Today

RM Seafood,Las Vegas

Celeb chef Rick Moonen is a champion of sustainable fishing, so at his RM Seafood restaurant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, he goes to the trouble to fly in “common octopus” called pulpoEspanol, from Spain, which is considered a “good alternative” on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch chart. “Spain appears to have the most stable octopus population, and [the octopus] are meaty and delicious,” he says. He cooks the octopus in a highly seasoned broth with aromatics, red wine and spices until tender, than marinates the cooked octopus before grilling it for his popular dish, Charred Octopus with Bell Peppers, Kalamata Olives and Potatoes ($18). “I do not peel the exterior of the legs,” he says, “as I believe that it takes away the true charred pulpo experience.”

Michele Ragussis’ Octopus Salad

Serves 4 to 6

  • 2 pounds octopus (ask the fish monger to clean it for you)
  • 2 ribs of thinly sliced celery
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 yellow and red bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chili flakes
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 shallot, sliced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons blood orange olive oil (or a really good olive oil plus the juice of one orange)
  • ½ cup champagne vinegar

Boil octopus for about 2 hours in salted water with a mirepoix of one carrot, one stalk of celery and one onion.

Take the octopus off the heat and let cool in the water.

Slice the octopus very thinly. Mix with the rest of the ingredients and let marinate for 2 to 4 hours, then serve with some great crackers on the side.