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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Octopus stew with greens (Χταπόδι)

Octopus is considered a delicacy in Greek cuisine, despite its being eaten often nowadays, due to easy access to seafood and modern refrigeration methods. When grilled, it makes the standard appetiser (what the Greeks call 'meze' or 'mezedaki' to make a dish sound small enough to warrant ordering more food) to accompany ouzo; think of yourself sitting in a Greek seaside restaurant (taverna) , with fishermen picking octopus from their nets and hanging them up to dry. Tourists were mesmerised by images such as these in the mid 1960s. The octopus was hung to dry for a couple of days under the hot sun on something like a washing line on the caique it was fished in, or the taverna it was going to be cooked in; apparently this process tenderises the octopus and makes it easier to cook and eat. That's a great natural organic way to soften octopus meat, just as long as you have fresh octopus and plenty of sunshine at your disposal.

Some people have access to neither of these, but they still manage to find ways to eat tender octopus. This shows the power of the human mind to adapt, invent and create, when lacking even the most basic conditions required to perform an age-old task. Today there was no sun in Hania, just lots and lots of rain, thunderstorms and sudden temperature drops. We wish it would do this more often - Hania gets dry, dusty and dirty because it doesn't rain very often. So today's rain was a great way to get the car cleaned, as well as the balconies and outdoor staircases. I had to resort to a similar alternative to tenderise my octopussy.

Octopus makes for a tasty seafood dish. When I go to fish taverns, I love to eat it grilled, lightly dressed with vinegar and oil. The dressing makes a great dip for sourdough bread. It's a little difficult to have it like this at home, and even more difficult to satisfy everyone's taste buds with octopus. Christine saw the octopus on the kitchen benchtop: "Oooh, look at its head!" Aristotle was intrigued by the tentacles: "Don't touch those, they'll stick to your skin!" Grandmother waved her hand in the air: "Not for my stomach." Her live-in nurse was thrilled: "Mmm, no greens today." (Little did she know.)

The head of the house (the one who thinks he wears the trousers here) wanted to eat traditional Mediterranean style octopus in a red sauce with spaghetti (of all things): "That's the way everybody eats it, Maria;" he spoke affirmatively with a knowing look on his face. "Just make sure it's tender." I suggested something else: "Elbow macaroni seems more plausible, honey..." "Elbow what?" I meant ditallini pasta, something we call 'kofto' pasta here in Crete. "No, we always had it with spaghetti." Here he goes again. When he uses the phrase 'we had it', it always means at least ten years ago. The idea of spaghetti octopussy put me off the whole idea of having octopus - I hate spag bog, so I couldn't fathom slurping on spag oct either. I never include myself in meal planning. I'm always eating the bloody leftovers.

So you may wonder who I cooked the octopus for. Why did I bother? I often ask myself that question. In recent times, food has become more easily accessible and available. Food is no longer seasonal; you can eat anything you like whenever you like. Young people are more willing to try out new taste sensations: more junk food is eaten and children's tastes are accommodated more individually than in the past. There was a time when , if you didn't like what was on the table, you were told to eat bread dipped in oil, or were simply sent away from the table hungry. That's why people didn't get fat then. One meal was served; if you didn't like it, there was no other food to choose from. Children don't get a special meal in our house either; I have to be cruel to be kind. They too had leftovers.

As few people were going to dine on this dish, I decided to stew it in a light red sauce with some wild greens. "Wild greens again, Maria?" you ask me. "Isn't that what you had yesterday?" Yes, albeit in different forms. Maybe I overdo the greens bit. We have a lot growing all over the place in Hania, so I feel it's my duty to pick and eat them. I put them into food when my family least expect them, I serve them as a side dish, they go into snacks. In older times, the village dwelling Cretans ate beans and greens every day, very little meat and lots of bread if flour was available (otherwise, they ate hard brown rusks soaked in water). Research says that the Greeks are some of the fattest Europeans, and some of the heaviest smokers in the world - but they have the longest lifespan in all of Europe, while Cretans have low cases of heart disease. I don't know whether their traditional diet is to blame (in the positive sense) for this; I wonder if my horta-foraging mother would have still been alive had she not moved to New Zealand. She died of breast cancer, the only woman in her longevity-rich family to have suffered this fate.

So I cooked the octopus in a way I remember my mother cooking it in New Zealand. I can't remember how she tenderised it, but I have a feeling she let it stew for a long time. I don't remember her bashing octopus on rocks, hanging octopus to dry in the driving rain of windy Wellington or placing it with wine bottle corks in a covered pot. All I remember was that the octopus was always soft and easy to chew, and no one complained of it being inedible.

You need:
1 small octopus, slightly tenderised by placing the washed cleaned octopus in a lidded pot with no water, and simmering on the lowest possible heat for 15 minutes (using a wine bottle cork is completely optional - I didn't use it, and the octopus still came out super tender)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion cut into thin slices
2 large tomatoes, grated
1 small glass of wine (I only had white wine available)
a small bunch of parsley, chopped finely
a small bunch of fennel, chopped finely
salt and pepper
(For a more substantial meal, add more greens, such as spinach, silverbeet and leeks - you won't regret it; I didn't have any left from my last pie-making round)
Tenderising the octopus helps in the sense that the octopus won't need to cook a long time in the sauce, and it will decrease the need for extra water in the sauce - stewing the octopus in the sauce may soften the meat, but it will make a stew too soupy. If you don't tenderise it beforehand, just let it cook longer with more water.

Saute the onion in the oil in a pot over low heat. Add the octopus chopped into smaller pieces and mix them about to cover them in oil. Then add the chopped greens and mix them in well. Add the wine and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cover the pot with a lid. Let the octopus simmer on a low heat until it's cooked to your liking. There is no time limit on this: just jab it with a knife, press it between your fingers or, better still, taste it. If you do serve this with macaroni elbows (or ditallini), the best way to cook them is in the stew, by adding just enough water to cook the macaroni, so that the stew doesn't turn too watery (this is definitely what I'd do next time I cook this dish, and it will be soon).

When the time came to serve it, I boiled up some macaroni elbows for Margaret and took it down to her. She liked what she saw. "Your mother-in-law will eat this, it smells delicious." It looked good too; the small pasta shapes didn't detract too much attention from the squiggly bits of pinky red octopus meat. It made it stand out in the plate. I was in a dilemma: should I cook up the same macaroni for hubby, or go for spaghetti, the only pasta he ever eats, the reason why I hate eating pasta? I fried some potatoes instead - in fact, this is what I remember my mother serving up with this octopus stew, one of the few times she fried potatoes at home, since this was what she was doing all day long in the shop. That combination looked beautiful, too. And when I served it with a green salad and some feta cheese, I think I couldn't have done better. My husband also approved; chips go with everything. When he went downstairs, he also found out that his mother tried the macaroni in the octopus sauce, but found it too al dente for her liking. Didn't she say she didn't want any?

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MORE SEAFOOD RECIPES:
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Squid stew
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Taramasalata