June 2014 Issue
Octopus — Simply Grilled to Perfection
By Bryan Roof, RD, LDN
Vol. 16 No. 6 P. 66
My wife and I had finally broken free. We were alone—without kids—and together in Portugal for the first time. I was excited about exploring Lisbon and mingling with the people, who I was assured were some of the loveliest on the planet. But I was especially excited about the food. After all, one of my in-laws’ great motivators for watching the kids for five nights was hearing my assessment of the cuisine. That, and I think they love their grandkids, but there’s no way to know for sure.
Our hostess, Paula, was only slightly odd, but slightly more genuine, and seemed excited about showing us around, despite not having slept the last 24 hours due to her medical residency. We shoved off from the airport midmorning to see the sights. As lunch approached, we walked passed numerous quaint-looking restaurants, some with locals fisting wine and singing at the bar (always a good sign), as she whet our appetites with stories of salt cod and heady beef stews. However, when reality set in and we stopped walking, I found myself at a university cafeteria lunching on Swedish meatballs, rice pilaf, boiled carrots and, I think, rice pudding. I had subtle suspicions that this wasn’t entirely Portuguese cuisine.
Needless to say, my expectations for dinner were depressingly low. That evening, on a narrow downtown side street, among a row of tan stucco façades, we approached a door. The barely visible plaque to the right read “Gravatas.” The décor inside made it obvious that gravatas meant “necktie,” and there were as many of these hanging from the rafters as fish off the Portuguese coastline. Several refrigerated display cases housed two of Portugal’s most prized offerings: grass-fed beef and fresh seafood.
The kitchen work seemed to spill into the dining room, and meat and fish were being butchered in plain sight. The restaurant’s signature dish, if there was one, was a large slab of raw steak sprinkled with coarse salt and served on a piping hot stone that cooked the steak as you ate it, leaving each diner responsible for flipping his or her own steak occasionally for even cooking.
But I was in Portugal for the seafood more so than the beef, so, on Paula’s insistence, I ordered the grilled octopus. The service was slow but comfortable. When my octopus finally arrived, I was surprised to notice it was an entire octopus, weighing close to 2 lbs. It was flecked with bits of char from the grill and sprinkled with the same coarse salt as the steak. The plate was flooded with bright green olive oil with a few just-tender garlic cloves floating like islands. There also were several potatoes scattered about, which seemed to absorb the flavors of everything at once. The octopus was supremely tender and slightly smoky, the narrow tips of the tentacles crispy from the intense heat of the grill.
This was, perhaps, one of the single best meals I’d encountered anywhere. Such a simple dish, done perfectly, had left me stunned. Perhaps even more stunning that night was my newfound respect for Paula’s restaurant picks. Redemption in the form of grilled octopus? How often does that happen?
— Bryan Roof, RD, LDN, is a chef, dietitian, and food writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @bryanroof.
If buying frozen octopus, try to buy those from Spain or Portugal.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 tsp red chili flakes
One (5-lb) octopus, beak removed, rinsed
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
1. Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 300˚F. Combine the oil, garlic, and chili flakes in a Dutch oven or large pot. Warm the oil mixture over medium-low heat until the garlic is golden, five to 10 minutes.
2. Blot the octopus dry with paper towels and add to the pot, head side up. Cover, and transfer the pot to the oven. Bake until a paring knife inserted into the thickest part of the tentacles meets little to no resistance, about 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the octopus. (The octopus will shrink considerably during cooking.) Remove the pot from the oven and let the octopus cool in the lidded pot for about 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare a medium-hot fire on a charcoal grill. Transfer the octopus to a large plate, spoon some of the oil mixture from the pot over top, and season with salt and pepper. Grill the octopus, turning frequently, until charred in spots and evenly colored, about 10 minutes. Remove to a plate, and let the octopus rest for 10 minutes. Remove the tentacles and serve either whole or cut into pieces, with some of the remaining oil mixture spooned over top.
Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 300; Total fat: 8 g; Sat fat: 1.5 g; Trans fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 145 mg; Sodium: 700 mg; Total carbohydrate: 8 g; Dietary fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 45 g