{a love letter}

A few years ago, I wrote an ode to an old love that was picked up by Chow as their favorite love letter of the season {flattering!}. When I ran across it the other day, I found it still stirred feelings for a flavor that's gone remiss on my table; I thought it worth reprinting here in honor of rekindled flames and the coming of cupid. 

There is something about Octopus that always makes me feel like love. It wouldn’t have seemed so when I first tasted the eight-armed creature back in the second grade when my classmate brought in cold Korean-style octopus for show and tell. I stepped right up to taste, but the texture was foreign, and the flavor did nothing to quiet my concerns that the suctions would stick to the insides of my cheek. The experience was memorable, but not in the way a food wants to be remembered. It wasn't exactly love at first bite.

Years later, at a dinner with Japanese delegates from the UN, my hosts insisted I’d find love in a bowl of baby octopi, heads and all. Like an ill-matched pair on a blind date, we sat at an awkward distance, the octopi and I, until etiquette necessitated I eat them in their entirety, with nary a lick of sauce or soy. It seemed there just was no chemistry. 

Several years later, the cephalopod waived its flirtatious arms my way again, this time more successfully, at a dinner prepared for me by my dear Valentine. An adventurous eater who’d spent several years near the sea in Spain, my Valentine and I shared a deep affection for foods that swim. When he placed the octopus before me, its skin glistened through the generous layers of olive oil, lemon juice and parsley; I couldn’t resist. It was delicious— tender, juicy, and meaty in a way I’d never thought seafood could be. 

Though I had never cooked octopus myself, I'd heard storied techniques for tenderizing that ranged from beating it with a rolling pin to cooking it with a cork. I saw my Valentine’s success as valiant, like wrestling a bear in the wild. So infatuated was I that I didn’t think to ask for details about how he’d prepared it (beaten and bruised?), where he had bought it (Chinatown?), or why he had gone to all of that work for just two itty bitty portions. I was in love.

Several months later, during a Central Park picnic, this Valentine produced a Spanish tin of Pulpo in Olio (Octopus in Olive Oil), a lemon, and a set of toothpicks. He pulled the tin back the pop-top handle, halved the lemon with his well-worn Opinel knife and squeezed the juice that quickened into the oil as an impromptu dressing. Having not the habit of eating foods from a can, I was skeptical but still amorous, so I partook. With one bite I knew I’d been blinded by love—the canned octopus had the same succulent tenderness as the one I’d tasted at his house. I should have known that my Valentine had more suave than skill.

That’s how I got stuck on octopus. Like every good love affair, it’s had its ups and downs, but there is always something new to discover. I’ve had octopus in paella and ala plancha, hot and sizzling, grilled and charred, sushi style, Spanish style, simple and sublime— always at the hands of a trusted chef, but never in my own kitchen.  Many things deterred me from trying it at home, the hours of beating and braising, seasoning and saucing that are required, the posture of the octopi lining the streets of Chinatown.

Last week, in a fit of Valentine’s nostalgia, I ordered Grilled Octopus with Fagioli Diavoli Beans and Cavolo Nero at Del Posto, across the street from my kitchen at work. It was captivating—skillfully charred and curled on top of earthy braised greens and buttery beans. Leave it to Mark Ladner, the man behind the menu of Mario Batali's Del Posto to create such simple goodness. I've rubbed elbows with Mark enough during the taping of Iron Chef {where he's Batali's sous chef} to peek into the kitchen and ask him his secret, inspiration to try it at home. But then again, I could cross the street, a far simpler proposition.

And then, there is always the tin can.

Recently, dear friends moved from Madrid to New York. As a token of love, I made them a meal with flavors from home—sardines, Branzino, braised lamb in TempranilloManchego cheese, and pulpo.

They praised all, but best of all the pulpo. They didn’t ask how I’d made it so tender, where I’d hid the remains, or which local fishmonger I preferred. And like my old valentine, I didn’t tell.

Maybe that’s the secret to love.



sarah said...

I'd love to hear your love letters, haikus, poems and prose about food, self-published by way of comments, here!

SkeeterNYC said...

I very much enjoyed reading this, it really brings you into the moment and make you want to seek out Octopus! You are quite the cook. -Liza

Kirsten said...

I am a Midwestern pulpo convert as well.....What a great love story!

Kirsten said...

Love this entry, Sarah, as I am Midwestern girl pulpo convert, too! Mmmmm....my mouth is watering just thinking of the olive oil, paprika and sea salt my father-in-law uses to "dress" (if you will) his pulpo.
Also, I am reminded of a trip to the Canary Islands where I saw a man on the beach catch an octopus with his bare hands and beat it against a rock for a solid 5 minutes. It was brutal to watch. I was horrified until Dario explained to me the whole process that goes into making the pulpo meat perfectly tender. Eye opening to say the least.

The Smiths in NYC said...

Pulpo is so wonderful when it is done right. Great post.

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.