Octopus Is Not Quite Kosher
I am an unlikely person to share with you a delicious recipe for cooking octopus. You see—in case you missed an important detail about my culinary upbringing—I grew up in a Kosher home!
My father is Jewish, and needless to say, his personality truly reflects his heritage and upbringing. A surgeon, my father Leonardo is strong, opinionated, heavy at times, and always Kosher. For me, as a kid growing up in Tuscany of all places, keeping kosher was kind of a problem: "What, no Prosciutto Sandwich allowed? Ever?"
Each year growing up, my brother and I endured two complete calendars of religious festivities and rituals, one for my Catholic mother and her family, and one Jewish father and his. You see, my parents were slightly progressive in the 70s, and when I was born out of a mixed marriage, neither one of them felt necessary to influence my religious views one way or the other. In their opinion, it was good enough to be expose me to both cultures, and the choice of faith would be mine.
I have gone to Temple, I have gone to Church, I have spoken to both the Priest and the Rabbi. I have enjoyed incredibly long Yom Kippur dinners and observed a no-pasta, no-bread Passover in respect to my father; I stuffed myself with Tortellini, Mortadella and Shellfish in respect to my mother when my Dad was not around. And I fell in love with pork, in respect to my very self!
Things changed the day I turned 14, when I finally gained my freedom, in the form of a 50cc motorbike. I will remember that day as if it was yesterday! October 1986, my parents unveiled for me a used, all-black, tricked-out, super tight scooter: "Happy birthday, from tomorrow on you are driving yourself to school. Here is your water-resistant gear, in case it rains!"
Five minutes later I was on the phone with Patrizio, my very best-friend-in-the-making… we had just started high school together. "Patrizio, I am coming to your place. Let's cook!" I was finally free to drive myself to a grocery store or a deli, and exercise my free culinary will, for the very first time in my life.
Patrizio's house became a safe heaven, and his kitchen the place where I would learn and experiment cooking with all the most un-Kosher ingredients I could get my hands on: Pork, Shrimp, Mussels, Meat and Cheese combos... you name it! All of it became fair game. And so, there was nothing more natural than celebrating my bachelor party in Patrizio's newly renovated kitchen in piazza Santa Croce, and cooking a big plate of Shellfish!
The pasta recipe is very easy and straight forward. The octopus, however is one of those ingredients I am still working hard to master. But I believe you should never let fear of the unknown keep you from trying to cook new and exciting foods. So let me share with you what I know about cooking with this fantastic creature.
A fresh octopus is better than a frozen one, not just in terms of texture of the meat, but also in terms of flavor; a freshly caught octopus still can taste a bit like the ocean even after boiling for over an hour. That ocean flavor disappears with the freezing process. But when I prepare this dish in Los Angeles, I am more than happy to use a frozen one when I find it.
There are a few different ways of cooking octopus, regardless of how you end up serving it. The animal is a tough, rubbery muscle; it needs to be worked very well before ending on your plate. I personally like boiling it in water and herbs at a low flame for a decent amount of time (1-2 hours, depending on the size). But others like to season it with salt and cook it in a covered skillet with minimal water for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Just different schools, the end result is the same.
To achieve a beautiful result, dip the tentacles in and out of the boiling water a few times. This will make them curl up, and the dish will look wonderful when it gets to the serving platter.
As a rule, I never serve big pieces of octopus—I do not like cutting it on my plate, I believe it always should be served in fork-ready bits or slices. As funny as it sounds, I have found that some people, especially when trying octopus for their very first time, are put off by its texture while they cut it. I just like to make it easy to bring to your palate, the flavor always passes the test!
One last piece of advice: Octopus does not make great leftovers.
My evening was a real success, and it was a true joy to again cook with Patrizio in his house; all my dearest and oldest friends were there, just like it was 20 years ago.
And the conclusion to a perfect evening? A late-night date with Debi in Piazza Santo Spirito, where we met 10 years ago and fell in love. Every time we are in Florence, we go to visit that ancient square to celebrate our family and our incredible journey together.
Watch Gabriele and Debi Mazar cook meals from their home, every Wednesday night at 10:30pm ET/ 9:30pm CT on Cooking Channel.