When Stefano was a child, his family sought reprieve from the summer heat of Rome at their little country house near the town of Latina along the Tyrrhenian Sea, a subdivision of the Mediterranean.
Most days, he wet to the sea with his cousins, who had a house next door. Sometimes, they would swim, and other times, they would forage mussels along the rocky stretches of the coast to bring home for dinner. Everyone once in a while, they’d observe someone fishing for octopus.
Because octopuses creep and crawl better than they swim, they like to congregate near rocks. Stefano and his cousins used to watch as fishermen stood on the pier that stretched out over the water and fished for the soft-bodied, eight-tentacled creatures. To catch an octopus, they used a polpara, a special lure with a weighted body surrounded by a ring of fish hooks. The polpara was attached to a line, which they bobbed up and down to catch the octopus’ attention. When a curious octopus wrapped its tentacles around the lure, the fisherman pulled the line up to claim their catch.
Although they rarely fished for octopus themselves, Stefano’s parents often brought one home when they shopped at the fish market. Stefano’s mamma, Maria, would cook it and add it to a summer seafood antipasto or sometimes let it shine all on its own in octopus salad or insalata di polpo.
Here in the land-locked upper Midwest of the United States, we “fish” for our octopus at the local seafood market, and enjoy the squeals of awe from our friends and family who’ve never handled or eaten this delicious sea creature. Sometimes we grill it; other times, we prepare polpo e patate – warm octopus and potatoes. Our go-to, though, is insalata di polpo, a bright, citrusy, chilled octopus salad that makes a great antipasto to a seafood meal.
- 2 octopuses approximately 500 grams or 1 lb each
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 medium carrots, or a handful of baby carrots
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 bunch of Italian parsley
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 clove garlic
Fill a large pot with about 3 or 4 inches of cold water.
Place the octopuses in the pot along with a bay leaf and a cork from a recently opened bottle of wine.
Bring the water to a boil, and then let boil gently for 20 minutes. Turn off heat, and allow the octopus to cool to room temperature, in essence, cooking it its own water.
In the meanwhile, dice the carrots and celery finely, and the garlic super-finely. Chop about 2 tablespoons of flat leaf Italian parsley. Place it all together into a medium bowl.
Remove the octopus from the water and pat it dry. Cut into small pieces, and add it to the bowl.
Cover with extra-virgin olive oil, stir in the juice of one lemon, and salt to taste.
Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes for the flavors to express themselves, then serve.
Italian grandmothers swear that a cork in the water renders the octopus more tender. It has not been scientifically proven, but it’s lore we’re happy to promulgate. If you don’t happy to have a cork handy, this is a great excuse to uncork bottle!