When I eat out, part of the fun comes from ordering foods I don’t normally cook at home. Charred octopus is one such item. While it has always been a menu staple at Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese restaurants, the cephalopod seems to be having a moment, appearing on widely varied menus around the country.
At Oak + Rowan in Boston, chef Justin Shoults features octopus differently depending on the time of the year. In winter, that may mean pairing it with bone marrow and hazelnuts, while in summer, he makes it the star of his take on salade Niçoise, also featuring confit potatoes and an incredible black olive caramel. “Octopus is great because it is from the sea but has a meaty texture,” says Shoults. “This makes it versatile for all kinds of accompaniments in all seasons.”
No matter how he’s serving it, Shoults prepares his octopus the same way: a long, slow braise to make it tender, followed by a short sear on a very hot grill. This two-step method guarantees the octopus is tender with a hint of smokiness and some lovely crisp bits. Although the result is restaurant-worthy, his basic recipe is so easy to master that anyone can cook octopus at home—even me.
Good to Know
Octopus comes in a range of sizes. At his restaurant, chef Shoults tends to prepare baby ones that are just a couple of inches long once cooked. (Octopus shrinks mightily when cooked.) Slightly larger and thicker tentacles—about 1 inch across at the thickest end before cooking—can be easier to grill and a better introduction for cooking.
Look for octopus in the frozen food aisle. Almost all octopus is frozen before shipping. Fortunately, the quality of octopus does not suffer much from freezing; plus, freezing begins the tenderizing process. If octopus has been blanched—it sometimes says so on the packaging—that’s fine and won’t affect the recipe here.
Look for cleaned octopus. Cleaning octopus is not for the squeamish as it involves removing the innards from the head sack, but most octopus is sold already cleaned. If you happen upon a fresh, uncleaned octopus, ask the fishmonger to clean it for you. If the octopus still has the head and beak attached, cut off the head (if the octopus is large) and remove the beak, situated amid the legs, by popping it out the other side.
To tenderize octopus, cook it until…tender. Cooking time will vary depending on size. You can test with a knife—the thickest part will yield to the blade—but Shoults recommends taking a bite to be sure it’s tender.
How to Serve Charred Octopus
Serve it as a starter with a simple yogurt sauce. Shoults mixes 3 Tbs. black garlic purée with 3/4 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tsp. each sherry vinegar and minced fresh parsley, and a little salt and pepper for a dramatically dark and deeply flavored accompaniment. Or, in place of black garlic, soak rehydrated chopped dates in dry sherry, and purée that with the yogurt to mimic the deep, sweet flavor of black garlic. In the photo above, we went easier still, mixing yogurt with chopped tender herbs and including some charred lemon slices and dressed microgreens on the plate.
Showcase it in a salad. Delicious in a simple green salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, it would also make an outstanding Caesar. Or try Shoults’s version of Niçoise salad featuring charred octopus.
Toss it with pasta. Add some charred tentacles to your favorite tomato sauce—a spicy one would work especially well—and serve over pasta for a Sicilian-style treat. Or slice it thinly and top a pizza with it.
Pair it with potatoes. Serve it alongside roasted or grilled potatoes and roasted peppers drizzled with garlicky aïoli. Add it to a stew or paella. Since it’s already cooked, include it at the last minute to boost excitement and flavor.