Monday, February 27, 2012

braised baby octopus

My last night in New Orleans was spent at a little restaurant in the 9th Ward called Bacchanal Wine. It occupies a canteen truck, a 2-storey building on a corner lot and a big backyard strung with lights. On the main floor customers select cheeses and bottles of wine from coolers and wine racks, pay at the bar, and grab glassware, paper napkins and plastic knives on their way out back. There they sit in crappy patio furniture sipping wine, eating cheese on crostini, listening to live music and choosing supper from a 6-item B+W photocopied menu designed by chef Joaquin Rodas. On our night he had:

Brussels Sprout Salad - fennel, shaved red onions, watermelon radish, mizuna
Braised Mushrooms - polenta, sherry, Manchego cheese
Braised Baby Octopus - grape tomoatoes, red wine, bread crumbs
Grilled Drum Fish - slasa verde, hominy, pickled onions, cabbage
Grilled Flat Iron Steak - fingerling potatoes, duck fat, chimichurri
Chocolate Bark - extra virgin olive oil, marcona almonds, sea salt

You order and pay at the canteen truck window and get a set of plastic flatware and more paper napkins. The food is beautifully plated on paper dishware. We shared the salad, mushrooms, octopus and steak. All were really f'n good, but the octopus stood waaay out. Such unforgettably multifaceted flavors!

I love making braisings, and a few mouthfuls into that octopus I knew I wanted to try recreating this one given the seafood shop just down the street from my apartment at home. During my return flight I composed a recipe in mind, and after a snowy taxi ride in from the airport, I dropping my bags in my living room, scanned the refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and then dug my feet into winter boots and walked to the market for the few things I was missing: 1/2 lb of octopus, a can of cherry tomatoes, a bottle of red wine, a bunch of Italian parsley. By then there was a foot of snow on the ground and no sign if it letting up. Edith was dropped off, I ran to get Alice, and we three settled back in for an evening of cooking. What I made turned out beautifully. So beautifully I made it 2 nights later for Oscar supper with friends.

p.s. Bacchanal is frequently featured in HBO's Treme.

Braised Baby Octopus with Cheese Grits

For the Octopus:

extra virgin olive oil


kosher salt

1 medium Spanish onion, thinly sliced

3 plump garlic cloves, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

black pepper

2-inch curl of orange peel

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs each fresh thyme and rosemary

5 fresh sage leaves w/ tender stems, snipped up with kitchen scissors

1 teaspoon Szeged Fish Rub or Sweet Paprika or any good quality sweet paprika)

tomato paste

Paprikakréme sweet (if you can find it, otherwise more sweet paprika will do)

2 cups red wine

2 cups chicken stock or boullion
1 12 oz can whole cherry tomatoes
1/2 pound baby octopus, tentacled sections only
1/2 head escarole, coarsely chopped
1/2 bunch Italian (flat-leaf_ parsley
white wine vinegar
optional: 3 Tablespoons Bonne Maman cherry compote

Set a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add 4-5 glugs of extra virgin olive oil, a Tablespoon of butter and about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Add the onion and garlic to the pan, turn the heat to low and add a few twists of black pepper. Stir with a wooden spoon to coat the onions and garlic with the melted butter and oil. Add the orange peel, herbs, and fish rub or paprika and stir everything really well. You want to sauté this for about 15 minutes on low, stirring now and again. The onions need to turn brightly golden and limp and the herbs are vibrantly green and fragrant.

Meanwhile, open the tomato paste, the cherry tomatoes, and the bottle of red wine. Unwrap a chicken bullion cube and put half a kettle of water on to boil or open a container of chicken stock. Place the octopus in a colander in the sink and rinse well with cold water. If you're using bullion, ready it by dissolving in 1 cup boiling water measured in a pyrex cup.

Give the mixture on the stove a good stir with the wooden spoon. Add the tomato paste and paprikakrém and smooth it into the onions and herbs. Then add the red wine and stir well again. Turn the heat just below medium and cook 10 minutes, until the wine has reduced somewhat and everything is deep red and bubbling. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir, then add the stock or bullion and another 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Stir well and raise the heat to high. Bring to the boil.

Carefully squeeze any excess water off the octopus and fold them into the boiling pot of broth. Cover and turn the heat to low. Cook 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes or so.

Wash and chop the escarole. Remove the lid from the pot and give the braising broth a taste. It will probably need correcting: more kosher salt (or a drizzle of tamari), a few more grinds of black pepper, and the cherry compote, which provides a desirable sweet and tart element. If you don't have the cherries, you could use maple syrup and no more than a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. The white wine vinegar added just before serving will also provide some tart, so you don't want to overdo it at this point.

Add the escarole and stir gently to incorporate. Raise the heat and bring back to the boil if it seems inactive after the addition of the escarole. Lower the heat and cook, uncovered, for another 2 hours. This is step is essential for reducing the broth.

For the grits:
2 cups chicken stock or bullion
1 cup milk
1 cup white corn grits (quick or regular)
1 Tablespoon butter
2 Tablespoons cream cheese or chèvre
kosher salt
black pepper

Pour the stock and milk into a medium heavy-bottomed pot set on high. Bring to the boil, continually stirring with a small whisk. Slowly add the grits, in a steady stream, whisking continuously. Keep whisking until the mixture starts to thicken and you notice large bubbles forming. Immediately turn the heat to low and exchange the whisk for a small wooden spoon or paddle. Continue stirring 3-10 minutes, depending on the speed of your grits). Once the mixture becomes thick enough for the spoon to stand up unaided, add the butter. Stir well. Add the cheese and stir well, ensuring all the dairy is melted and integrated. Turn the heat almost off.
Stir the braising and, if need be, adjust the flavors again, adding a few splashes of white wine vinegar. Remove the orange peel, bay leaf and thyme stems. Wash and partially stem the parsley, removing any tougher sections. You want about 10 tender sprigs for each diner. Ladle the grits into large bowls or plates then ladle the braising on top and beside the grits. Lay the parsley around one side.

Serves 4


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