Polpo e patate — Octopus and potato salad

Food brings people together, this we all know. It unites people around a table, for the everyday or the special. A meal is the reason to go out, to stay in, an excuse to get to know someone new or celebrate with those closest to your heart. It’s also the main thing two food bloggers who have never actually met in person know they have in common. So from the get-go, you know that an offer of, I’m in town, let’s get together and cook, is usually the start of something good.

Eleonora Galasso

And so was the case when I met Eleonora. For some of you, Eleonora Galasso may not need any introduction. The charming, Rome-based, self-proclaimed “food interpreter” and blogger has just announced that she is writing her first cookbook. If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at her recent post on how she got her book deal — an unusual story of incredible persistence and determination (note, carrying freshly baked maritozzi on the train to London for the publishers doesn’t do any harm either!) that just shows that giving up is for wimps.

Although she now lives between Rome and Paris (with little stints here and there in my current town, Porto Ercole, where she has been coming her whole life), she is originally from Puglia — a place I fell in love with at first sight, smell and taste. She wanted to cook me a dish that spoke of her origins, one that her nonna taught her and one of the most traditional dishes of the region — a thick, earthy puree made from fave, dried fava beans.

The day I met Eleonora, she was carrying around a heavy bowl of soaking fava beans, covered with a tea towel. It’s normally served up with cicoria, or bitter greens, but not being the right season (and Porto Ercole being a tiny port town with limited shopping options), she paired it with slightly charred, fried friggitelli – delicious little green peppers, so named because they are best fried (friggere means ‘to fry’ in Italian). They, too, are slightly bitter, which contrasts beautifully with the somewhat sweet flavour of the chunky fava bean puree. It’s an absolute pleasure to eat (and even better the next day, as I discovered). Find Eleonora’s recipe here.

fave e friggitelli

While Eleonora mothered over a deep pot of barely simmering fave for nearly an hour and a half, I got onto another dish, polpo e patate – octopus and potato salad. It’s a common dish all along the Tuscan and Ligurian coast, found in nearly every port along the way. After a quick coffee on the port, we popped into Da Ledo, my favourite local fish shop in Porto Ercole, Eleonora with her fava beans perched on one hip. I wanted a polpo di scoglio, a large, local octopus with a double row of suction cups on its tentacles, the best kind for this, and a favourite of Tuscany’s coastal cuisine. But they hadn’t come in off the boat that morning — and what gets caught also depends entirely what the sea gives them — so I picked up some smaller (but larger than usual!) moscardini instead. I was assured they would still make a great salad, and they did.

There are many, many ways Italians will tell you to cook an octopus. There are tricks and secrets to getting it meltingly tender — some, I’ve heard, include boiling with a wine cork (more on that in a second), vinegar, sea water or pummelling the beast (or rather more violent, bashing it on a rock to break down the fibres) before putting in the pot. Others include not boiling it in water but letting it cook in its own juices. A very wise (and guaranteed) tenderiser is to pop the fresh octopus in the freezer the day before and defrost it — something my husband and Rachel Roddy preach. The cork tradition is a funny one. My husband likes to tell this story. Along the ports of Sicily whole octopus was cooked for you right then and there in enormous, bubbling pots. To recognise which was yours, a cork was tied to the octopus with a piece of string before going in — the floating cork was handy for pulling out the right octopus when the time came. Passersby believed the cork in the boiling pots of octopus also helped tenderise it somehow but this is apparently a myth (though a charming one at that).

polpo-moscardini

Not having the time to freeze my moscardini, I risked it and popped them in a pot of water to boil for about 40 minutes. The general rule is to either cook them for very little or cook them long enough that they give way and become meltingly soft. If you have a larger octopus, an hour usually suffices. Let it cool in the cooking water, pull it out, chop it up and place it in a bowl with the cooked, chopped potato, a handful of parsley and season well with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice (or red wine vinegar). A very crunchy stalk of celery, sliced thinly, goes nicely in there too if you have it. Eat it room temperature or chilled (on a hot day, this is one of my favourite salads).

And because of the long cooking times, we had plenty of time to chat (I even made some pine nut brittle, but there are no photos because, well, I burnt the sugar, but more on that next week), even with a curious toddler pulling me away from the kitchen. Now with dishes laid out, it’s time to toast to new friends made and feast.

polpo-e-patate

Polpo e patate Octopus and potato salad

Cleaning the octopus involves removing the eyes, beak and innards and rinsing under cold water — this is often already done when bought in a fishmonger or supermarket or if you have bought it frozen, but at my fresh-off-the-boat fisherman’s shop front, they are just as they were pulled out of the water. You can also skin them before cooking but it’s just as easy (if not more so) to peel the skin off after cooking. Serves 4

  • 1 kg octopus, cleaned
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • handful of parsley
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • Optional: garlic clove, chopped or finely grated or celery stalk

Place the potatoes whole and unpeeled in a pot of cold water and bring to the boil. Cook until tender (a knife should slip through it easily), about 20 minutes, depending on how old your potatoes are. Drain and let cool before peeling and chopping into chunks.

Cook the octopus in a large pot of unsalted, boiling water for about 40 minutes (or until very tender – poke it with a fork to check and if not yet tender enough, leave it for a little longer) and let it cool in the pot until tepid.

Remove, drain on paper towels or similar, peel off the skin and chop into pieces about 1 inch/2.5 cm long.

Combine the octopus and potato chunks in a serving bowl. Dress with parsley, lemon juice, enough olive oil to make it all glisten and season with salt and pepper. If you like garlic, a finely grated garlic clove mixed through it goes well too and the crunch of some sliced celery is lovely too. Serve room temperature or chilled.

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Comments

17 Responses to “Polpo e patate — Octopus and potato salad”
  1. Ana says:

    This is exactly how my mum in Dalmatia makes this dish. Though the garlic is not optional. And it’s at least half a head of garlic, rather than a single clove. :)

    • Emiko says:

      Oh that’s wonderful to know that this dish seems to be common throughout many coastal regions — and yes, some more garlic than others!

  2. Bec says:

    Another lovely post! Just one question, I’ve never prepared a whole octopus before – when you are cutting it up, which parts are edible? Or in the cleaning process, did your fishmonger remove the beak/stomach sacks etc? Just as when I get one from the fish market here in HK, it is likely to be entirely intact!!!

    • Emiko says:

      So, it’s in the recipe headnotes, but you cook the octopus whole (cut it up later, when it’s cooled). Before it goes into the pot, cut out the beak (a pair of kitchen scissors is handy for this) and that will open up the the head where you can just pull everything (including eyes) out. It’s not for wimps!

      • Bec says:

        Thank you so much! And apologies… I should have read the headnote properly!! (silly me!)
        Definitely looking forward to giving this recipe a shot on the weekend!

        • Emiko says:

          No worries! Good luck, I’d love to see the fish market in HK one day (I’ve been many times but when I was a child so it’s been too long!), am betting it’s amazing! :)

  3. How I loved reading this, E.! Cheers to Instagram for connecting and cheers to getting together and cooking and talking in real life – I love when that happens. Polpo e patate is hands down one of my favourite summer meals, and sadly I don’t cook it often enough, but when I do, I always try to freeze it first. Now I know that if I’m in a hurry there’s a shortcut! Thanks for this xo

    • Emiko says:

      Ha and the “shortcut” only takes 40 minutes minimum! :) haha but seriously, now that we are living in a port town, I’m so enjoying cooking with super fresh seafood and adapting slightly from what I’d do with supermarket-bought seafood (where often I find the octopus is already frozen and sold defrosted – worth checking!). And yes, cheers to meeting like-minded, food-passionate folk online :)

  4. I have heard and read a lot of Eleonara’s unusual cuisine upbringing which has catapulted her to fame. Today she has opened the doors of her home in Rome’s historical centre organizing cooking workshops. She is one of the most famous “food interpreter” and hugely popular among food enthusiasts. It is heartening to note that she is writing her first cookbook. Thanks a lot for sharing the recipe of Octopus and potato salad.

    • I’m allowing myself the luxury of intruding in Emiko’s wonderful blog commenters just to thank you for your heartfelt compliments! I’m glad my work resonates in your poetic country, Belgium, which I will hopefully be able to visit soon for some foodie adventures.

      All the best, Eleonora Galasso

  5. Angela Brown says:

    This looks so lovely. Every time I think of octopus, I remember the first time I was in Spain, staying on the coast, when I sat on my balcony and watched a man pull one from the ocean with his hands (part of which later ended up on my husband’s plate that evening). Something so beautiful about that moment; it has always stuck with me. I so wish I loved to eat octopus the way I love to reflect back on that serene moment! It looks so satisfying, and yet, octopus and I have never quite agreed! But the recipe looks just beautiful! Thanks for sharing :)

  6. Frank says:

    This is the kind of exquisitely simple dish that made me fall in love with Italian cooking.

  7. Paweł says:

    In Poland we have only frozen octopuses. I cook about 40 minutes and octopus is wonderfully tender. So freezer is the best tender solution for this mollusc :) Recently i’ve made roasted octopus with potatoes (it was dalmatian “Pečena hobotnica s krumpirom” but make in oven, not in traditional peka).

  8. snoozie says:

    So, was it worth the risk of NOT freezing, and did it turn out tender?

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