Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm Not Crazy and I Eat

How do you feel about eating octopus? I've had little bits of sliced large octopus tentacles on nigiri sushi; not disgusting but it wouldn't be my first order at the bar.
I know it is a very lowly, common food along the coast of the Mediterranean, and every time I read about little pulpo vendors or restaurants that will cook your own catch if you bring it (and you'd better buy some Cava, señor), I am filled with yearning.
How would I ever stumble across that brisk, soft, slightly charred, not rubbery, cephalopod, served with a really good lemon-herb seasoning? Here in decidedly upscale Northern California where the climate is Tuscan and the restaurants are getting better and better?
Ha ha. I must be a fool. Have I even tried to stumble across it, or is it just a crazy dream tucked safely in the pages of glossy magazines?
Sincere apologies and a tip of the hat to my friend Brett, who runs Contigo in San Francisco. An octopus salad is on the menu there; I've only eaten there once (chagrin) and I must have missed it.
"Missed" it. I probably skipped it. I'm not all that brave.
I had a lovely meal at a private dinner upstairs at Emporio Armani in San Francisco many years ago, prepared by an Italian chef. He brought out small plates of thick six-inch lengths of octopus arms, seared and draped in greenery. I'm not sure what the seasoning was, because I refused to taste a single bite.
Bunch of American yahoos. There were a dozen or so of us, and almost everybody passed on the pulpo. The chef was visibly nonplussed, which is Italian for pissed off, when the plates of wasted food were cleared.
Suddenly, though, I'm ready to try everything. I'm up for tripe and sardines and, well, bring it and I will give it a fair and square bite. (I know where to get lamb tongue.)
I had lunch today with Cranky at the new Boca Pizzeria in Novato. I'm avoiding gluten, but I cheated and had a few slices of the excellent pizza. Not the best, compared with some of the other ovens in the region, but really, very good. 9 on a scale of 10, and you should be so lucky.
The menu has wonderful choices that don't include wheat. Baby Octopus Salad.
My eyes began to swim, and Capt. Ahab threw a harpoon at them. My eyes got out of the ocean.
I'm Having That. I could barely read on.
This is a new me. Embracing a sea-change in my appetite, I waded in (yet more aquatic metaphors), mouth wide open. I devoured the tender little seared florets in their lemon-herb sauce surrounded by walnutty-peppery leaves of arugula.
Then I toweled off and rode away with Old Spice Guy.
What had I been I waiting for?
It was better than pizza. It was better than good pizza.
And it did not predict the World Cup. It was just a plateful of babies. World Cup was probably over when they were born.


Zoomie said...

My only experience with octopus was in Japan, where it was served at a very fancy, let's-see-what-the-American-will-eat banquet at which I was representing My Family as well as My Country. The only gaijin at the party.

Oh, dear.

It was more or less tasteless but the more I chewed its rubbery self, the bigger it grew (rather like releasing the rubber bands inside a golf ball) until I had finally to swallow _now_ or I'd never get it down. Too much loss of face to remove it, so I gulped (literally and figuratively), washed it down with sake, smiled a big smile, and vowed never, ever again to eat anything that used suction cups for getting around.

cookiecrumb said...

Zoomie: I know exactly what you're talking about, but do you think it might have been ika, or cuttlefish? I avoided that shiny white slab with the knife crosshatches in it (which failed to tenderize it) after my very first taste of it, also in Japan. And I swallowed mine, too! Gag.
Try some octopus; cooked right it is easy to eat. There are tinges of purple in the skin, and you'll see suction cups. (Cool!)

kudzu said...

You know how every now and then you eat something that "sounds" completely neutral and discover that it is food you always wanted and will never forget? That's the way it was with baby octopus salad at Pesce in San Francisco (where they serve Venetian style small plates, many of them with seafood). It was simply slices of white, tender octopus, cubed potato, celery, and arugula in the freshest lemon vinaigrette. (I was tickled to see it listed as one of MB's favorite dishes of SF in a recent column.)

I have eaten it Asian style, too, and tomato-spiked Italian with pasta, etc. But none of these -- even the little starter of braised tiniest baby octopus at Stellina in Pt. Reyes -- comes close to that Pesce treat.

PS Caught you on Sam's video: looked like such fun.

cookiecrumb said...

Kudzu: Oh, octopus didn't sound "neutral" to me. It was scary. I only ate the sushi because, well, it wasn't half bad, but any other presentation... Hey, I said it wasn't half bad, but I was scared? Fool.
Anyway, I've been to Pesce (once) and while I felt quite brave to eat smoked sturgeon, I wouldn't even consider octopus. I love the description of your plate; at Boca they could ratchet it up a bit and have a first-rate offering. At least it was cooked right.
We're going back really soon, before octopus falls off the menu. (I promise to try something else new, too.)

kudzu said...

PS Just checked Pesce's menu online and the octopus salad is GONE. Is it Michael's fault? (His words came out only several weeks ago.)

What do you mean that Boca would "ratchet it up a bit"? Pesce's is beyond first-rate.

kudzu said...

I'm taking up all your space tonight.
Read "could" instead of "would" and came out swinging all eight arms.

cookiecrumb said...

Kudzu: I meant Boca might go beyond just a two-ingredient salad by taking a look at Pesce's. Oh, wait, there was a roasted cipollino, too, (really yummy).

Kailyn said...

Years ago I was in Mexico visiting my mother. She took me out to a restaurant and insisted that I have their stew. After hearing me rave over each mouthful, she said, " The things you are calling scallops? Those are slices of pulpo. I didn't tell you because I knew you wouldn't eat it otherwise." This is when I started rethinking the escargot thing. I have found that both when prepared well are heavenly.

Elizabeth said...

I used to eat octopus all the time - and yes, I agree that Zoomie's experience was probably ika, because I had the same one, only I described it as unyielding jello filled with sawdust ... - but anyway, I don't eat cephalopods any more. They're too cool. Watch this: and then be glad with me that pigs have not learned how to communicate with bizarre skin patterns, because then I couldn't eat them either, and I do love bacon.

Zoomie said...

What I had in Japan was white with purple "skin" and cross-sections of suction cups. Not going there again.

cookiecrumb said...

Kailyn: Good trick on your mother's part. She was right, and it was a good introduction for you. Believe it or not, I still haven't tasted snails. Maybe somebody could sneak a few into fudge brownies.

Elizabeth: Oh, I don't want to watch the video! I'll just tell myself their skin responds much like the back-up sensors on modern cars: circuitry, not intelligence.

Zoomie: Well. I won't be able to convince you to try.
More for me!

Cali said...

I completely understand where you are coming from! I lost my taste for almost everything I used to love in the last year. I'm pretty sure it is related to menopause finally reaching an equilibrium I can live with. (Read as: no more night sweats, thank the Lord and pass the pork!) Instead of craving chocolate every four weeks like clockwork, I now crave salt. My latest find is meant to be a candy for Latino kids, and that's almost how I eat it. It's a lime salt called "Limonazo" and it's incredibly sour salt. It has a tiny percentage of sugar, but it's almost undetectable to the palate. But it sure is tangy. It'll turn your pucker inside-out! (And, warning, acid burn your tongue.) It is delicious on/with fruit, too.

Somehow related to the menopause thing, I no longer care what anyone else thinks about me or what I say or do. If I see someone doing something stupid and dangerous, especially if it's also dangerous to others, I speak up-- and I don't stop until the person doing the stupidly dangerous thing stops. Last night it was some idiot talking on his cell phone WHILE pumping gas!

Greg said...

Late to the party I am.Maybe after a glass or so of Cava I would try some octopus. Two martinis got me to try oysters for the first time. The new Boca Pizza sounds so good.

Shine said...

I think with Octopus it is ALL about the preperation and freshness. I have had it where it tasted rubbery and where it was incredibly tender. One friend I had (a bachelor obviously) used his washing machine to tenderize his octopus and I have to admit it came out beautifully.

My parents used to make us escargot for a treat late at night sometimes. Little points of toast, parsley, lots of garlic butter, escargot topped with cheese into the oven and then a circle of adults and children slurping away. We were shocked when we found out escargot=snails but by that time we were hooked.

Kelly said...

hola! Am in Barcelona as I write and damn right, those babies were born when the world cup was won. hAD A CAVA OR TWO THAT NIGHT. Never seen such teensy octo and squid in my life- hours least they eat them. The trick to enjoying them is having someone cook them who knows and cares. YUMM!!!! Pickled octopus Greek style was my first revelation into sucker loving. Give that a shot next time.

cookiecrumb said...

Cali: Uh, OK!

Greg: I've always been a scaredy cat. Had my first raw oysters in my 30s. It's just a mind set. You would probably really like the octopus. Galore.

Shine: I would never attempt cooking octopus myself, even if I knew where to get the raw material. I considered this find very lucky.
I love your story about the "snails"! Your parents did a good thing. I guess I gotta man up and try some.

Kelly: You are in Barcelona! Sigh...
Thanks for the endorsement on the bitty babies. My head spins to think of the cuisine there.
And, I will explore the Greek version! Sounds good.

Ms Brown Mouse said...

Barbecued baby octopus – one of the finest meals ever, eevo & lemon & some herb or other YUM. I love the little curled up tentacles all crispy at the ends, crunch, crunch. I leave the “heads” though, I don’t know why.
Bigger occy I absolutely only eat the legs, some tenderize by bashing them on rocks, some do it in cement mixers we do it by chopping the legs into bits and putting the bits in a plastic bag with some kiwi fruit (Chinese gooseberry?). Works for calamari too, though I’ve sworn off eating those little buggers since watch this doco -

cookiecrumb said...

Mouse: Barbecued! Crispy tentacles! OK, that's next. (And, still with the lemon? Must be magic.)
I can't believe the tenderizing techniques. I can certainly do the kiwifruit version!
Should I watch the video? I like fried calamari.
OK, I'll squint at it.

peter said...

I actually prefer to poach it in pieces very slowly in olive oil until it's tender and yields to a gentle bite. An acidic sauce of some kind really sets it off. Meaty and oceany all at once.

cookiecrumb said...

Peter: That sounds nice. Like calamari, I guess -- either low and slow, or hot and quick. The lemon is essential.