Monday, September 28, 2009

Octopus, and Being a Tourist

I Am A Tourist.

Well, sort of ... I actually have a teeny small place here in society, as a cook, but in truth I am a tourist. I will leave in a couple of months, and that position I hold will evaporate. It is a temporary gift to me, by the willingness of the larger Italian community, and the Chef I am working for. My opportunity is to learn all I can and take it away.

Kipling said “I am part of all that I have met”, but methinks I will be forgotten pretty soon after I leave. What is much more germane is the inverse of that thought of Mr. Kipling; “All that I have met is part of me”.

One of my favourite poems is about this, precisely. It is “Ithaca”.

“When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

by Constantine P. Cavafy in 1911

On that note, let me encourage a culinary adventure.

I love good seafood. Most North Americans don’t eat octopus. The kind folks in Detroit toss octopi on the ice at NHL Games, and that’s about it. Our entire relationship with this gustatory treat is through hockey.

Well, be a culinary tourist for a day ... try this adventure on for size! Have fun. Do it with a friend, or more.

Go to a good fishmonger and get a fresh octopus. (In Toronto I go to Diana Seafood at Lawrence east and about Warden, or City Fish on Dufferin near Ranee, or Fiesta Farms on Christie south of Dupont. Or the St. Lawrence market.)

Take the octopus home and clean it under fresh cold water. Get a large pot of COLD water (one where there will be room for boiling gently, AND the octopus). Fill the pot with cold water and put in the octopus. Salt the water. Put on the stove and heat to a gently simmering boil on a large ring, where the heat will be evenly spread over the entire bottom of the pot ... do NOT cook it fast, as the meat will toughen ... and when done take it out of the pot and do NOT rinse it off and reserve on the counter or on a plate. It won’t look like what you started with ... the tentacles will have curled up, and the head shrunk.

While it is gently simmering, peel some potatoes and halve them. Put them on a platter and toss a bit of olive oil on, both below and onto the potatoes. Add a sprig or two of fresh rosemary to the platter. Fire it into a hot oven and gently broil until done ... about 15 minutes, I would guess. (Our commercial equipment operates differently from home equipment, so I am adapting for you.) While these are going, prepare some large, long fresh green or yellow snap-beans to be slightly steamed, and perhaps some fresh mini-tomatoes soaked in a light vinaigrette, with a basil emphasis. Do not cook the tomatoes.

As the potatoes are broiling and the octopus is cooling, put the octopus onto a cutting board. Cut off the tentacles from the area near the beak. Cut off the mouth-parts (the area near the beak) and discard. Slice the head into thin rings, keeping or discarding the innards as you choose. This should all be tepid to counter temperature. Peel the skin off, if you choose. Cut the tentacles into 2 cm lengths (about an inch, I think). The meat will be very tender.

When the potatoes have cooked, remove from the oven and let cool on the counter. Remove the rosemary and keep a few (maybe 20 or so) of the leaves ... discard the stem. Drain the beans when they are still crispy a little.

Into a large bowl put the octopus meat, and a little pepper. The potatoes that have been cooled a bit, the beans that have cooled, the rosemary and fresh kosher salt. In our kitchen we add a little more EVO (extra-virgin olive oil) and some balsamic vinegar to the bowl, then toss it all around to make a delicious octopus salad. Add tomatoes. Add a little fresh black pepper, coarsely-ground, and a bit more sea-salt. Toss gently (I just use my fingers so the meat is not damaged). Plate onto wide, shallow bowls and enjoy with a wine of choice and friendship in spades. Drizzle on a little more EVO to garnish the rims and the content. Serve with fresh, warm bread and a little balsamic vinegar on the side to dip.

If you’ve never tried something like this before, let this adventure be your first voyage to a culinary Ithaca!