I’ve wanted to share this recipe with you, my mother-in-law’s Octopus with Olives, for a while. It’s a special dish, one that I intended to devote some time to here. But I have a bad habit for someone who writes about food—I like to eat it. Sometimes I’ll even polish off a dish before I’ve snapped its photo which is what happened to the Octopus with Olives I made two weeks ago.
It started out so well. I bought the ingredients in the morning: a 2-pound octopus, whole black olives packed in oil, fresh onions…
Mid-cooking, I paused to take photos of my ingredients, like this one of the octopus after it had steamed. Almost regal looking, I think.
And this one of the octopus sautéing with the onions.
And this photo of the reduced sauce,
By six o’clock I had finished the sauce but needed to run out so I boxed it, put it in the fridge and left. When I returned, the sky was too dark for photos so I promised myself that I would shoot them next day. Only I didn’t. My memory has become so poor—or perhaps my appetite so intense—that at noon the following day, I believed I had taken photos the previous night and ate the leftover octopus for my lunch. I realized what I had done two days later when I began to write. So embarrassing.
I wanted to write about a summer night when my mother-in-law cooked trays upon industrial-sized trays of octopus pasta for about 50 Orthodox priests. That night, the priests with their charcoal robes and grizzled beards filled the veranda where we ate, their demeanor rather gloomy. I didn’t understand their ecclesiastical Greek and felt too exposed in my own floral sundress. In the buffet line, I spooned a mound of my mother-in-law’s octopus pasta, stirred with bright red, tomato-flavored pasta. Its flavor and stew-like texture comforted and reoriented me. I enjoyed the night again.
Mostly though, I remember my mother-in-law’s recipe as the first octopus dish that I tried and liked. The trick is to steam the octopus for a few minutes which softens the meat and allows it to absorb the wine sauce. I prefer this method over grilling which sometimes results in rubbery octopus. So, every August or September since, I’ve cooked some version of Octopus and Olive pasta for myself and Spyros. It’s a nice end-of-summer, early fall meal. The earthy red-wine sauce eases me back into winter-ish cooking while the octopus reminds me that summer was not so long ago.
I recooked the dish last week which was no problem for Spyros and me. Really, I could eat it every day. This time I had memorized the recipe and knew its rhythm. I had learned how to salt and season it better and was careful not to over-steam the octopus. Spyros confirmed that Take Two was tastier. Really, though, I do need to be more disciplined with photo-taking. I mean, who eats their post? Regardless, I hope you’ll give this dish a try. Cooking Octopus this way is easy, and, if you can buy pitted whole olives in olive oil, the prep is a cinch. Once you’ve made it, I think you’ll understand why the try didn’t make it to the post.
*Adapted from Συνταγές από Τα Μυλέλια, Οικογενειαή Υπόθεση, Recipes from Ta Mylelia, a Family Affair by Christina Panteleimonitis
Octopus with Olives
500 grams/ 1 pound dried, short pasta such as ditalini or orzo
1 medium octopus (1 kilogram, 2.2 pounds), thawed if frozen
2 medium onions, finely chopped and soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste diluted in 11/2 cups hot water
1 cup whole black olives jarred in olive oil, pitted.
1 ½ cups red wine
1 bay leaf
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, depending on your taste
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 whole allspice berries
5 whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed
a pinch of oregano
- If your octopus has already been cleaned, remove the beak by flipping the octopus on its head and finding a small hole in its center. Press firmly beneath the hole until the beak pops out. You can cut a hole in the other side to make this easier. If your octopus hasn’t been cleaned or you’d like to see a good tutorial on how to prep an octopus for cooking, this is a good one. For this recipe, you needn’t dip the octopus in boiling water prior to steaming it.
- Place the octopus in a large pot with half an inch or so of water. Cover the pot and set the heat to high. Allow the octopus to steam for about 10 minutes, until it softens. Remove the octopus and cut the legs into small, bite-sized pieces.
- Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a wide, deep saucepan and cook the onions and the octopus. When the onions are soft and translucent, pour in the tomato paste/water mixture and the wine; stir. When the mixture begins to simmer, add the olives, vinegar, bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns, and oregano. Cook until the sauce has reduced, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in the capers and turn off the heat. Cover the saucepan with a lid to keep warm and set aside.
- Meanwhile boil the pasta in salted water until slightly less cooked than al dente, usually about 4 minutes less than the package directions. Strain the pasta from the water, without shaking it completely dry, and transfer it to a glass dish.
- Drizzle the pasta with olive oil, pour over the warm octopus sauce and stir to combine.