Move over oysters, lobsters, and scallops. Octopus is in.
Once upon a time, the shellfish was a dish found almost exclusively on the menus of Greek and Japanese restaurants. It wasn’t something you picked up at the store and made at home. Seeing the word octopus on a restaurant menu tended to conjure up one of two reactions in diners. Some would crinkle their nose in disgust, while other, more adventurous restaurant goers would give it a try, if only partly for the bragging rights. But from grilled octopus to octopus salad, octopus risotto to even octopus turnovers, the once-exotic ingredient is now the seafood everyone is trying, popping up on more and more restaurant menus over the past few years.
“When we started 15 years ago we sold 500,000 pounds of octopus a year, now we sell 2.5 million pounds,” said Frank Gullo of Gullo Speciality Foods.
Based on Long Island, Gullo Speciality Foods is one of the largest importers and distributors of sushi grade tenderized octopi in the United States. The company sells octopi caught in the north Atlantic and Mediterranean, to restaurants around the world, to home chefs through Whole Food Markets, Aga, Valentina and Citarella and online.
It was only a matter of time before the celaphod had a chance to shine. Long a staple of Mediterranean and Japanese diets, it’s low in fat and calories, but packed with vitamins. Cook it poorly and octopus is simply awful. Flavorless, gummy and rubbery. But cooked properly, octopus offers up incredibly tender, delicious, slightly sweet meat. It’s also a versatile, yet challenging, ingredient with the flavor changing depending on how it’s cooked whether grilled, simmered or eaten raw, making it ideal to experiment.
Chef Todd Jacobs of Red Bar Brasserie has served octopus in some form for the past few years. Currently, it’s on the appetizer menu as Grilled Spanish Octopus with Fingerling Potatoes, Castelvetrano Olives, Nduja Sausage and Tomato.
“Our current preparation has been on the menu for several years now and is influenced by the classic Spanish tapas versions of the dish,” Jacobs said. “Octopus is an ingredient that has been gaining in popularity over the past few years and has really become a mainstream ingredient.”
But while octopi has grown in popularity not everyone is happy they’re becoming a mainstream ingredient. Known best for their eight arms, bulging eyes and rounded bodies, octopi are highly intelligent and self-aware and some believe they are too smart to eat.
“They use tools, communicate with one another, and form social bonds,” Senior International Media Director for PETA, Ben Williamson said. “Octopuses have even been observed using coconut shells as shelter, and wielding the poisonous tentacles of Portuguese Man-O-War like swords. They can navigate mazes, solve puzzles, and open childproof jars. The best thing to do with octopuses, is to leave them alone.”
Despite the growing interest in eating octopus, the creatures are thriving in the wild. According to a 2016 study, global populations of octopi have boomed since the 1950s, possibly as a result of raising temperatures that speed up their growth cycle. And yet as an ingredient octopus is often considered a luxury, at least in the United States.
Gullo who grew up in Italy spent his childhood eating octopi almost daily, but after moving to the United States he had a hard time finding it.
“I turned it into a hobby to see if I could find good octopus and then cook it at home,” Gullo said of the start of his business which he describes as passion turned into reality.
Gullo started traveling, working to discover where he could get the best octopus from. There are more than 300 species of octopi around the world. Some call the bottom of the ocean home while others are found in reefs. Gullo believed he found the best tasting octopi in Spain and Portugal and its off those coasts that Gullo Speciality Foods sources its octopi today.
Part of the reason behind the current trendiness of octopus is that quality of octopus from catch to plate has vastly improved. With no internal skeleton but three hearts octopi are virtually all muscle. Gullo Speciality Foods uses sea salt, water and a tumblr to tenderize the octopus breaking down the octopus’ muscle, so you don’t get that hard, rubbery taste, in a process free of any chemicals or additives.
From there the octopi go to restaurants and homes where it’s up to the chef to create a delicious dish. Gullo shared their basic how to cook octopus recipe with us below, but they also have other recipes on their site including a grilled octopus salad, pulpo a la gallega, and ginger garlic scallion cilantro woked baby octopus and sepia.
Basic Preparation: Octopus
For small octopus, place in boiling water for 7-10 minutes. For the larger octopus, increase the boiling time to 30 minutes.
Once boiling process is complete, small octopus should be left in pot for an additional 10 minutes. For large octopus, let it soak for an additional 15 minutes.
Once ready, the octopus just needs a squeeze of lemon and can be eaten right away.
For more flavors, take the boiled octopus and marinate with extra virgin olive oil, white vinegar and pepper and place on the grill. Once the octopus is charred on both sides remove from grill and serve immediately with a slice lemon on the side.