Now that I’ve done it, I don’t know why in my thirty-year cooking career I had never cooked octopus.
It all started this summer when a friend of ours who had just been to Barcelona found out we were going and wanted to drop off a helpful packet of maps, brochures, and restaurant recommendations.
As he talked about his time exploring this funky city, octopus kept coming up. How much he had enjoyed it. How he’d wished he’d bought the special wooden tapas plates for serving pulpo a la gallega, or Galician-style octopus. Had I ever cooked it? What was the best way? Was it like squid that had to be cooked either hot and quick or slow and low? And then there was all this octopus folklore. That you needed to beat it, freeze it, or cook it with a cork for it to get tender.
But that was back in early June before I had ever cooked octopus or experienced Barcelona. And then we went on vacation where our last few days in Europe happily intersected with Sharon and Anthony’s time in Barcelona on their month-long honeymoon in Spain.
We tapas hopped a couple of nights, and naturally I was interested in Bar Celta Pulperia, a tapas spot that specializes in octopus. We ordered the pulpo (which came on those special wooden plates!) and a round of their house white, which they served in porcelain bowls. It was ten o’clock and our first stop of the night. The octopus was succulent and tender, the wine pleasant and crisp. I wanted more, but it was time to move on. That’s when I knew I would learn to cook this beast.
It took me until Labor Day weekend, but I finally cooked my first octopus. I confirmed the local seafood market had one. When I arrived, he hands me a six pounder—it’s all they’ve got, and I happily take it.
Simmering the octopus over low heat seemed to be the most common cooking method, so I started there. Since it was so big, I decided to simmer the octopus in a roasting pan, covering it with water to which I had added a few basic aromatics. But once the octopus started to cook, it seized up, causing it to rise above the cooking liquid.
To solve the problem, I cut the octopus into pieces—tentacles, body, and head—and continued to cook it until tender, which took about two hours. I removed its gelatinous covering and threw it on the grill, drizzling it with olive oil and lemon juice a sprinkling of parsley when it came off. Though I hadn’t discovered the perfect method yet, the octopus had gotten tender, and everyone one loved it.
A week later it was time to try another. Based on my experience of cooking tough cuts like pork shoulder, I decided to slow cook it in the oven. This time I choose a four-pounder, which had been frozen, and I kept the cooking method uber simple.
I placed the octopus on a rimmed baking sheet, sprinkled it with a little salt, covered it with foil, and put it in a 250-degree oven. That was it. I checked it a couple of times during the process, but right on cue at the two-hour mark, the octopus went from chewy to tender. As before, I cooled it down, stripped off the gelatinous coating, and tossed it on the grill.
The same crowd was there for the second tasting, and they all agreed this one was superior. Was it because it was smaller, or frozen, or because it had essentially stewed in its own juices? I don’t know. Was it necessary to beat the octopus or cook it with a cork? I don’t know that either. All I know is that I cooked an octopus in the most utterly simple way, and it was tender and succulent, and everyone loved it.
Simple Grilled Octopus with Lemon and Parsley
Serves 8 or more as an appetizer
1 octopus (aim for 4 pounds), thawed if frozen
1 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 halved lemon, half cut into wedges
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 250 degrees. Place octopus on a large rimmed baking sheet, sprinkle with salt, cover with foil, and gently cook until tender when pierced with the thin blade of a sharp paring knife, about 2 hours. Uncover and let stand until cool enough to handle.
Discarding octopus liquid that releases during cooking. Optionally, use fingertips to slip off the octopus’s gelatinous coating. Cut up octopus by removing the tentacles, and then halving the body and head crosswise to make 4 thin cutlets. (Can be covered and refrigerated for a couple of days.)
When ready to serve, prepare a hot grill. If using a gas grill, turn all burners on high until fully preheated, about 10 minutes. Use a wire brush to clean grill rack, and then brush lightly with oil. Coat octopus pieces with the olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Place on hot rack; cover and grill, turning only once, until spotty brown and tentacle tips char, 4 to 5 minutes.
Transfer octopus to a cutting board, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, squeeze with one of the lemon halves, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with extra lemon wedges, letting each person cut off bite-size pieces.