Winter holidays fare: baby octopus and calamari salad

It's become tradition, every early December my friend Elisabetta Fagioli and I mark the advent of the Christmas season with a holiday food and wine pairing workshop at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco. Elisabetta is a 3rd level sommelier specialized in Italian wines and for an hour or so she and I chat about the Italian holiday table and the whys and hows of dishes likely to be served during one or another of the many festivities this season brings.

For the eating and drinking part of the evening, we choose 3 different dishes from various regions, I prepare them and Elisabetta expertly picks wines most suited for the flavors. This year she focused on bubbly wines.

Such fun was had last Tuesday, on the very day when I woke up to find my voice almost completely erased by a sore throat. Since I could say very little, the food needed to speak for itself. Apparently it did, as several attendees have asked for recipes and information about my classes.

Here is how to make the starter, my take on an octopus salad that my Sicilian friend Maria Luisa Manca tells me is a staple on Christmas Eve in her region.

Insalata di polipetti e calamari Baby octopus and calamari salad

for 6 people

the dish with the sprkling wine Elisabetta recommends

1.5 pounds baby octopus (or an adult octopus will also work) 1.5 pounds calamari 1/2 yellow onion 1 celery stalk 2 to 3 sprigs parsley 1 Meyer lemon splash dry white wine 2 tablespoon salt 1 handful parsley leaves olive oil salt and pepper to taste 1 garlic clove

Before we delve into the procedure, let's chat about what to do when you first bring tentacled creatures to your kitchen.

One can generally find them clean. I prefer performing the task myself, because if they are whole they are less likely to have been previously frozen, but I also find the job deliciously relaxing, my brain wonders off into a cottony, fishy cloud of which I enjoy the sensorial aspect and the sense of accomplishment which comes with completing the work.

Should you decide that you are going to clean them yourself, here's how you do it.

Octopus (baby or adult): turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Now cut a little slit around the head, enough to be able to turn it inside out, and strip away the guts, brains and ink sac (you can keep that for other cooking if you'd like). Rinse and you're done.

Calamari: turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Sneak your finger into the body to pull out the bone (you will feel it, it rests on the side where the little flaps are, it is hard and feels a little like a feather in the center). Grasp the body at the tip and squeeze your way down to eliminate the guts and brain. Rinse and you're done.

A few more tips: I like to leave the skins on, as in my opinion it makes it that much tastier. If you'd rather doff the skin, it is much easier to do so once the critters are cooked, though you can also patiently do it while cleaning.

My zia Milla, one of the best cooks with whom I grew up summers in Italy, is of the school of thought that you only remove the beak and bone, but leave in the guts and brains. My mother used to remember my 5 year old self in awe of the gustatory experience that was zia Milla's stewed octopus. Apparently I said "And she leaves the brain in!".  The dish since became polpi col cervello (octopus with brain) and to this day, it is one of my favorite dish of octopus, in itself one of my top 10 foods.

Back to the recipe now...

Once the seafood is clean, fill a pot with water and add the parsley sprigs, onion, celery stalk, 2 slices of lemon, the white wine and tablespoons of salt. Bring to a boil.

Drop the calamari in the water, cover with the lid and turn off the heat. Let sit for about 20 minutes. Strain out of the water with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.

Bring the water back to the boil and drop in the baby octopus. When the water starts boiling again, turn the heat down and simmer until the octopuses are tender and easily chewable. (It will take about 20 minutes for the baby ones and longer for large ones, with timing depending on the size). Drain and set aside to cool.

While the seafood is cooking, grate the zest and squeeze the juice of the Meyer lemon, pick and clean the parsley leaves and smash the garlic clove.

Place the juice, zest and parsley in a small food processor with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the blade while gradually adding olive oil in a stream (this can also be done with a handheld immersion blender). Continue until you reach a balance of fat and acid your palate finds satisfying. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Transfer to a jar and drop in the garlic clove.

Divide the bodies from the tentacles of the calamari and baby octopus. Cut the calamari bodies in thick rings. (If using large octopus, cut in pieces suitable for a salad).

Combine the seafood in a bowl and season generously with the dressing from which you will have removed the garlic clove.

NOTES:

  • When buying large octopus, choose those with 2 rows of suction cups, they are the ones that live in the rocks and are tastier and more delicate than their sand dwelling brothers.