Readers of this blog should know by now that Greek food goes beyond souvlaki, spanakopita and pastitsio. There’s nothing wrong with these dishes but as Greeks, we do not eat them every week. The traditional Greek diet is weighted towards vegetables and pulses, grains and bread, fruits and nuts and fish and seafood. It’s a cuisine that respects what the land and sea give and rarely is anything thrown out. In ancient times, being creative in the kitchen was survival – not part of a competition in Iron Chef BC!
One such animal that is enjoyed immensely by Greeks is the octopus. There are some who don’t like octopus (you’re nuts). There are others who won’t even try it (you’re close-minded) and the rest of us who adore this delicacy from the sea. Us Greeks feature octopus in stews, with pasta, pickled, roasted, grilled (my favourite) and in salads.
I had this salad last year in Greece at a slightly higher-end Psarotaverna (fish and seafood tavern) in Thessaloniki. This slices of octopus arrived at our table. A light topping of a Latholemono (oil & lemon dressing) was all that adorned this dish. The dish has an obviousÂ sex appeal….it looks beautiful. Even the most die-hard octopus hater will admit that this dish is “easy on the eye”. Me, I don’t have to have thin slices of octopus arrive at my table for me to eat it but I can’t turn away an octopus dish either.
Food is about texture, look, smell – all the senses with taste still being paramount. Octopus is one of those dishes that touches upon all my senses. From when I hold the octopus in my hands to rinse it, to the aroma of this gift of the sea, filling the kitchen with aromas that take me back to Greece and finally, tasting the tender octopus, planting me back in the taverna, enjoying the morsel of octopus.
This particular dish looks very much like a mosaic one finds in many of the ancients ruins found throughout Greece. Thus the name given to this dish, “mosaic”. Like in any other instance of cooking with octopus. It must be braised, softening before deciding on your preferred way to present the dish. Here, we’re presented octopus as salad. An appetizer or as us Greeks call it, a meze.
The basics of this dish are as follows: the octopus first is braised in its own liquid (along with a wine cork) until fork-tender. I first heard about throwing the cork into mix from Chef Mario Batali. He claims the enzymes in the cork help tenderize the beastie. It’s never harmed the dish and I do think it helps tenderize. Then we allow the octopus to cool and then roll it up in cling-wrap and tie it with butcher’s twine. The octopus is then thrown into the fridge to “set”. The next day, unwrap the tube of octopus and slice into thin rings and arrange on a plate of your choice.
The final step is to make a dressing of Greek olive oil, fresh lemon juice and herbs to bring out the wonderful flavour of the octopus. In Greek cooking, we call this dressing/sauce a Latholemono. In its most basic form, it comprises of olive oil and lemon juice and in its more complex, herbs and other flavours are added to the mix. I’ve added some flavours that complement octopus without masking its wonderful flavour.
Octopus Salad “Mosaic” (Χταπόδι-σαλάτα-Μωσαϊκό)
1 octopus (thawed if frozen), at least 1 kg.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small clove of garlic, minced
a squirt of Dijon mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp. chopped chives (or scallions)
1 tsp. chopped capers
1 Tbsp. dried Greek oregano
salt and pepper to taste
- If working with a frozen octopus, thaw and then rinse and place in a pot large enough to contain it along with the wine cork and cover. Place on your stove-top over medium heat. Be patient and allow the octopus to slowly come to a boil. This step is important – do not be tempted to bring the octopus to boil over high heat (your octopus won’t be as tender). You need not add ANY liquid with the octopus. The octopus will begin releasing its own braising liquid.
- As soon as you see a boil andÂ the liquid has released from the octopus, lower the heat to medium-low, place the cover back on and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the octopus is fork-tender. Take off the heat and have a quick taste of the liquid, add salt to taste (if at all necessary). Allow the octopus to cool completely in the liquid. Remove the octopus and strain. You may reserve the liquid to make an octopus risotto for another occasion.
- Separate the eight tentacles and pile lengthwise onto a sheet of plastic wrap wide enough to roll up and obviously long enough to contain the octopus. Tightly wrap the octopus with the plastic wrap and secure with butcher’s twine. You may also use elastic bands to tighten the plastic wrap around the octopus. Place in the fridge overnight.
- The next day, remove the octopus from the fridge and snip and remove the butcher’s twine and unwrap the butcher’s twine. Thinly slice some of the octopus and arrange on a plate or platter of your choice. In a jar, add all of the Latholemono ingredients with a pinch of salt and pepper and place lid on on and shake to emulsify. Have a taste and adjust seasoning to taste. Spoon some dressing over your octopus, sprinkle some Greek fleur de sel (afrina) and some dried Greek oregano.
- Serve with some crusty bread and Ouzo or Tsipouro on ice or with some water added.
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