I recently did an Italian pop-up in Portland, and the undisputed star of the show was my gnocchi tossed in a tocco di carne sauce with shaved parmesan and drizzled with Paniole, a beautiful extra virgin olive oil from the Ciacci family, owners of the great Brunello estate Mocali. It’s a dish I absolutely love, but rarely if ever, make at home. It’s not that it isn’t memorable, or even ridiculously easy to make and simply addictive, it’s just that I cook a wide repertoire of food at home and dishes get lost and forgotten….
I was bitten by an octopus. – Ted Cruz
After my last article talking about Greek wine and pre-cooked octopus I thought I would follow up with a very simple method to cook your own sea beast. There is a lot of unwarranted fear surrounding octopus. Granted they are weird looking sea creatures with beaks and tentacles and a notorious reputation for being frustratingly tough. I have seen both professional and home cooks avoid preparing it like the plague. Done right it is sublimely tender and takes to a variety of preparations from simple salads to tandoori spiced appetizers to stewed in tomato sauce. Done wrong and it becomes a rubbery sea flavored chewing gum. There are many myths about the best way to tenderize octopus. They range from dropping corks in the poaching liquid, rubbing them with salt, cooking only in copper, using your clothes dryer to tumble them into tender submission, beating them on rocks to dumping enough vinegar in the cooking liquid to make you pucker for a week straight. The simplest and best method is to steam in their own juices. Try this and you will never go back to whatever method you used to subscribe to….
“Concerning the spices of Arabia let no more be said. The whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvellously sweet.” – Herodotus
I vividly remember the first cook book I read with the ability to transport me somewhere else. My mother had just bought Paula Wolfert’s seminal classic ‘Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco’. She always had a wonderful collection of cookbooks, some of which I borrowed permanently. From the opening stanzas, I imagined myself on the same 1959 voyage aboard the Yugoslavian freighter as Paula. I could sense the nervous excitement of travelling somewhere undiscovered and exotic. I crawled under my sheets with a flashlight, creating a Bedouin tent in the sub sahara, leaving the cold Midwestern night far behind. Soon the perfumed smells of exotic spices and mechoui spit roasting co-mingled in my imagined world of my youth.
Many years ago I graduated from the prestigious New England Culinary Institute run by Michel LeBorgne, a hard nosed French Chef from Northern France. Like every great Chef before him, and probably every one since, Chef LeBorgne had his aphorisms we lived our lives by. They were repeatedly drummed into our thick skulls as we chopped vegetables, sauteed fish and made stocks. Every one growled required the standard ‘oui Chef” shouted back in unison like raw recruits at boot camp. Most were modified from the classic themes of how older generations had it much harder than us young punks. ‘We were so poor as apprentices, we only had one pair of shoes between the two of us” or “I used to walk to the restaurant uphill both ways.” The one that stuck and became part of my own repertoire was “I lost my first million in the garbage can”. That line inspired me throughout my career and helped maintain very low food costs and run a tight ship. Even now, decades later I am still guided by that principal….