Recipe: Warm Potato Salad with Grilled Octopus and Flowering Thyme
Sometimes on an oppressively hot Manhattan evening there’s nothing I like better than closing all the windows, jacking up the AC, throwing on a Chinatown bathrobe and lighting a cigarette (if I’m feeling tawdry), opening a bottle of red wine (a fresh, unoaked Barbera Castello del Poggio, for instance), and getting myself into the kitchen to cook up a big pot of something that bubbles and steams and smells rich but ultimately produces a dish of lightness. There’s where the octopus comes into play.
I’m not into those baby octopuses you find at restaurants these days. To me they look like waterbugs. I know they’re quick to sear up, but for flavor and texture I prefer the big ones. They need a long, slow simmer, something that couldn’t be simpler or more sultry. After that first step, you can move on to grilling or sautéing to create a summer masterpiece.
Get yourself a good-size octopus, about two pounds. Fresh and frozen are both fine. I’ve been finding fresh at my fish seller lately. Have it cleaned (which means excavating the head section), but otherwise leave it whole. Then all you need to do is lower it into a pot a liquid.
I know you’re wondering about the cork trick, right? Supposedly placing a wine cork in the pot helps tenderize the octopus—something about the cork’s enzymes. Many chefs and home cooks swear by this. I really don’t understand it. I’ve tried it several times, and I couldn’t discern any difference. I’d rather cook the thing in the wine itself. At least that gives it good flavor.
Warm Potato Salad with Grilled Octopus and Flowering Thyme
To simmer the octopus:
1 approximately 2-pound octopus, cleaned, and thawed if frozen
1 bay leaf
1 cup dry white wine
A few thyme sprigs
2 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
For the salad:
Extra-virgin olive oil
A generous pinch of hot paprika
A pinch of sugar for the octopus, plus another little pinch for the vinaigrette
Freshly ground black pepper
A dozen small red new potatoes
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 red shallot, thinly sliced
A palmful of capers
About 8 large thyme sprigs, with blossoms if available, the leaves chopped
1½ tablespoons Spanish sherry vinegar
A generous pinch of ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
Put the octopus in a large pot, and add the bay leaf, salt, 1 cup of white wine, the thyme sprigs, and the garlic cloves. Add cold water to cover the octopus, and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, partially covered, until the octopus is tender, about 1 to 1½ hours, depending on its size. Start testing after about an hour; you can overcook octopus, making it dry. It’s done when a skinny knife goes easily into the thick part of the tentacle. When the octopus is tender, turn off the heat and let it sit in the water for about 20 minutes (I find this helps tenderize it further). Then lift it from the water, and let it cool until you can handle it.
Cut the tentacles from the body of the octopus, dry them well, and then toss them with a little olive oil. Season with the hot paprika, pinch of sugar, salt, and black pepper.
Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan. Cover them with cool water, and season well with salt. Boil until just tender, and then drain well. Cut the potatoes in half, and place them in a large serving bowl. Mix the white wine with a tablespoon of olive oil and a little salt, and pour it over the hot potatoes. Toss gently with your hands, letting the wine mixture soak into the potatoes. Scatter on the red shallot and the capers.
In a small bowl, add the thyme and blossoms, vinegar, sugar, allspice, and about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Season well with salt and black pepper, and whisk everything together.
Set up a grill pan over a high flame (or you can do this on an outdoor grill, if you feel like leaving the house). When the grill is nice and hot, add the octopus and grill it, turning it once or twice until it’s well grilled all around (but not charred, if you can help it). Pull the octopus from the grill, and cut it into 1-inch pieces.
Add the octopus to the potatoes. Pour on the vinaigrette, and toss gently. Garnish with the parsley. Serve right away.