Some know it, many don’t and I now urge you to try the combination of octopus with eggplant. Next time you’re at a Greek taverna and you’re ordering seafood – make sure you have some octopus and eggplant in the mix. Try tasting both the eggplant (say Melitzanosalata) and the eggplant both in your mouth. WOW! Yes, they go together very well and I love the combination of flavours.
This past summer in Greece, many a conversation revolving around food occurred: regional recipes, tips and tricks, debates arguments about recipes and contented sighs when agreeing on certain flavour combos. Again, the subject of octopus and eggplant came up – I do love the pairing.
Just a couple of days before my vacation in Greece ended, I met with a wonderful woman by the name of Stella Spanou. Stella, my friend Yianni and I met at the Biblia Hora Winery just west of Kavala for a winery tour and then we embarked for Kavala for some seafood fare right by the sea. Stella is originally from Thessaloniki, she currently lives in Xanthi (“Ksanthi), Thrace and she’s a marvelous ambassador for the northern Greek cusine of Macedonia and Thrace. I immediately warmed to this lady’s charm and as soon as we started talking food, the stars aligned even more so!
We enthusiastically agreed that octopus and eggplant go together wonderfully and upon mentioning that I had also just returned from Constantinople (Istanbul), she mentioned that octopus would be wonderful served on a bed of “pourai melitzanas” or, eggplant puree.
Eggplant puree is a dish borrowed from Turkish cuisine and more specifically Hunkar Begendi, where strewed lamb in tomato sauce is served over an eggplant puree. Much like when making Melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), the eggplants must be charred on a grill or charcoal so that they may attain that mandatory smoky aroma and flavour. After the eggplants have cooled enough to handle, they are added to a pot that contains a roux of butter and flour and then whole milk is added. The pulp of the charred eggplants are removed and added to the milk mixture. The mixture thickens and some grated cheese is added along with herbs and there you have your eggplant puree!
The second component of this dish is protein – the octopus. I love octopus and so should you. Anyone who truly embraces Greek cuisine must also embrace the octopus. It is so part of our cuisine – it’s on practically every seafood taverna’ menu, it’s caught in the same waters where we swim, it’s eaten during the Great Lent when red meat is not eaten and most important – the beastie tastes great!
Although my favourite way to enjoy octopus is grilled, I adore it in all forms and today, we’re having it “Kokkinisto” or reddened – in a red sauce. The octopus (be it fresh or thawed from frozen) must first be braised. In this instance, I add a couple of bay leaves, some allspice berries and just the octopus. No water as the octopus’ own liquid will excrete and provide all the braising liquid required. Some (Mario Batali for one) like to add a wine cork into the mix as the cork is supposed to help tenderize the octopus during the braising step. It’s your choice…give the cork a try…or not!
After about 45 minutes of braising the octopus over medium-low heat, your octopus should be fork tender and ready to be introduced to the sauce. The sauce is made of the octopus stock (don’t thrown it out as it’s very flavourful), onions, tomatoes, garlic, red wine, sweet paprika and scant amount of salt and fresh ground pepper. The octopus is introduced and the sauce simmers, reduces and melds with the flavours of the octopus.
The warm eggpant puree is spooned on your plate an then topped with a good serving of Octopus Kokkinisto. Serve with some crusty bread and a nice, bold red that will hold up to the flavours of the smoky eggplant and unmistakable taste of octopus in this wonderful, easy and aromatic sauce. I think the Biblia Hora Ovilos Dry Red Cabernet Sauvignon would be a perfect match.
Octopus Kokkinisto on a Smokey Eggplant Purée (Χταποδι Κοκκινιστο με Πουρέ Μελιτζάνας)
1 large octopus (fresh or thawed from frozen), over 1 kg.
2 bay leaves
4-6 allspice berries
For the Kokkinisto sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
4 large, very ripe tomatoes – passed through a box grater
OR 1- 796ml can of crushed plum tomatoes
OR 2 heaping Tbsp. of tomato paste diluted in 2 cups of water
1/2 cup of dry red wine
1 cup of the braising liquid from the octopus
2 Tbsp. of honey
1 heaping tsp. of dried Greek oregano
whole capers for garnish
Smoky Eggplant Purée
1/2 cup grated Kefalotyri or Romano cheese
2 heaping Tbsp. of cream cheese
2 Tbsp. of butter
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
2 cups of milk
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of chopped fresh chives or scallion greens
fresh ground pepper & salt to taste
- Rinse your octopus, ensure the beak has been removed and place in a pot with the bay leaves and allspice berries and wine cork (optional). Cover and turn on the heat to medium. Uncover and check that the liquid has been released from the octopus. If so, cover, reduce the heat to medium low and braise for 45 minutes or until fork tender.
- In the meantime, place another pot on the stove-top over medium heat and add the olive oil, onions and garlic and sweat while occasionally stirring for 5-7 minutes or until translucent. Now add the red wine, grated tomatoes, about 1 cup of the braising liquid from the octopus and fish out the bay leaves and add into the sauce pot.
- Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook while occasionally stirring for 30 minutes. Remove your fork-tender octopus from the other pot and cut up the octopus into eight equal pieces (each tentacle in tact) plus the head and throw them into the pot with the tomato sauce. Simmer uncovered for another 15 minutes. adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, add the honey and the dried Greek oregano. Cover, remove from heat and keep warm.
- Pierce the eggplant around a few times all around and roast over high heat in your gas or charcoal grill. Turn the eggplant every 10-15 minutes until all sides of the skin are charred.
- When the eggplant has cooled enough to handle, cut the eggplant open with a knife and spoon out the meat of the eggplant. Discard the skin. Pound the eggplant using a mortar and pestle until it’s creamy yet chunky. Reserve.
- In a medium saucepan, add your butter over medium heat and when it’s melted add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the colour turns to a light brown. Now slowly add your milk while stirring until the mixture starts to thicken (like the consistency of cream).
- Add your roasted eggplant puree, the cream cheese and grated cheese and stir to incorporate. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and stir in your chopped chives. Reserve and keep warm.
- Spoon some eggplant puree onto each plate and then spoon a couple of tentacles of octopus with some tomato sauce over the eggplant puree. Serve with good crusty bread, garnish with capers and serve with a dry red wine. To serve as a meze, plate everything on a platter and encourage sharing!
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