23 03 2011

It’s been on the list for ages, and my betentacled destiny beckons at last. It’s time to cook my first Spanish octopus.

It would be a stretch to call my first octo-stint wholly “successful” – grilling the partitioned beast over fiery coals on the Puerto Peñasco beach was a cheerful affair, but resulted in what would inevitably be remembered as rubber. Since then, I’ve done my reading; proper octopus (known by some as proptopus) (okay, this stops now) must be exposed to heat for either an extremely short amount of time, yielding a pleasantly springy final specimen, or stewed for an extended period, resulting in supremely tender cephalo-goodness.

I hunted down my frozen eight-legged friend at El Corte Inglés; I could swear they normally have them at Mercadona as well, but perhaps there was a run on them this weekend – I can’t be the only one who craves it. It took a warm water bath until totally defrosted, which took perhaps 10 minutes.

One of the neatest things about octopus is the amount of liquid they hold within their bodies; upon braising, this releases into the pot, conveniently cooking the flesh in its very own juices. It simmers this way for at least an hour, filling the air with aromas of tentacled tempation.

After a slew of stewing and an equally lengthy period of cooling rest, the octopus is ready for the knife. There’s nothing rubber-esque about it whatsoever at this point, and it smells divine. The head gets cut up completely as well; the only inedible bit is the small hard circle where the mouth bone has been removed – amazing.

My octopus was treated to a pairing with garlic, spinach, garbanzos, and a pair of thai bird chiles. The broth is purely what was released during braising, which ends up being quite strong, seafood-y and salty. The subtle heat imparted by the chiles rounds out this dish, prolonging the magic of the octo’s complex and dominating flavor.

It’s also ridiculously good for you; octopi are almost purely protein, plus a great source of iron and omega-3 fatty acids. Add spinach, and you have a seriously nutritious soup.

Octopus and Garbanzo Soup with Spinach, Garlic, and Chiles
Adapted from epicurious

takes: 2 1/2 hours, mostly unattended
makes: at least 4 hearty servings

1 cup cooked garbanzos
extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
Zest of 1 lemon
1 small octopus, defrosted and rinsed
1/2 package frozen spinach, defrosted
1-2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 dried thai bird chilies

1. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a pot (preferably heavy-bottomed, but you know, make do with what you got). Stir in 3 of the garlic cloves, the lemon zest, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic begins to soften.

2. Add the octopus, stir to coat it with the oil, and then weight it down with a plate or lid to ensure it does not begin to float once it starts releasing its water. Cover the pot and adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. The octopus will start slowly releasing its water, creating its own braising liquid.

3. Cook for about 30 minutes and check to see how much braising liquid is in the pot. If it is about 1 cup or less (unlikely if you are using an uncooked whole octopus), add 1/2 cup of water. Check the tenderness and continue to cook for 30 to 50 minutes longer, or until almost completely tender. The octopus will dramatically decrease in volume.

4. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the octopus to cool in the braising liquid for 1 hour.

5. Once cooled, transfer the octopus to a large cutting board and strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. Give the pot used to cook the octopus a quick wash and return it to the stove.

6. Starting at the thickest point of the tentacle, slice into 1/4-inch-thick-pieces, increasing the thickness of the pieces as the tentacle becomes narrower. Halve the head, then cut it into 1/4-inch strips. Set aside.

7. To prepare the soup, heat a few tablespoons olive oil in the cleaned pot over medium heat. Add the remaining 3 garlic cloves, the celery, and the chiles. Stir in the beans and the octopus, plus however much reserved braising liquid you desire. Heat until hot and then taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed (probably not). Stir in the spinach and simmer for a few minutes more.

8. Serve immediately. Holy moley.

País Vasco/La Rioja: Nibbling the North

15 12 2010

País Vasco/La Rioja Introduction here.

Both el País Vasco and La Rioja are internationally famed for their gastronomy, the former for its cutting-edge kitchen techniques and the latter for its age-old vineyard traditions. Here’s a peek into what we munch.

The Bilbao weather that greets us can be gently described as “blustery with a hint of hail,” and we take early evening refuge from the ice onslaught in a covered barbeque stall at the end of a river fair. Huddled up in a mass of mujeres around the space heater, we request a little bit of everything, accompanied by a miraculously warmth-bestowing bottle of wine.

The waiters bat their lashes at us just enough to keep things playful, but we only have eyes for the mountain of meat. Chorizo, torreznos, and ribs roasted over the fire, accompanied by the crustiest of hearty Spanish bread and salty year-old sheep’s milk cheese (not pictured) makes for supreme satisfaction, medieval carnivore style. At some point during the fleshfest, a troop of trolls comes bounding past, skipping and jiving to vaguely Celtic tunes despite the hostile weather. The wine invites me to high-five them, and I do so with enormous joy and a bulging belly.

Upon arrival in Donostia-San Sebastián, we head towards La Zurri, recommended as an inexpensive menú del día of “delicately cooked Basque food” on WikiTravel. Emily zeroes in right away on the volovanes con foie, puff pastries overflowing with incredible cream sauce, marvelous mushrooms, and decadent duck liver. Yes. Welcome to town.

As Spanish cuisine ekes its way into the international mainstream consciousness, it becomes more and more chic to “go out for tapas” – which probably doesn’t mean what most Americans think it means. Rather than mere “small plates,” tapear is a social bar-hopping activity, where each bar gifts you some kind of edible along with your caña or vino. In Madrid, this is not all that common a practice, although post-Rastro Sundays in La Latina are certainly worth a jaunt or two; Granada to the south and León to the north hold much more claim to tapas fame.

In País Vasco, tapas are not called pintxos. Pintxos are called pintxos. Vital differences:

Tapas are:

  1. free with your drink,
  2. bar food – usually greasy, starchy, and/or recently unfrozen, and
  3. often found congealing in questionable metallic cafeteria trays on the bar,

while pintxos are:

  1. paid for separately, ranging in price from 1-5€,
  2. miniature obras de arte – usually beautiful, elaborate, and/or recently reheated, and
  3. found tastefully arranged on plates lining the establishment, intended as the center of attention.

In pintxo bars, just like in the huge majority of other eating establishments ’round these parts, you tell the bartender what you’ve consumed at the end and pay accordingly – none of this cash-up-front crap. If you encounter a pintxo bar where you are handed a giant plate and told to go to town on your own and pay according to toothpick, you may also want to look for the door – custom is to eat one pintxo (and down one small beer – known as a zurrito – or glass of wine) per bar, then scoot, or stumble, to another locale.

Leah informs us that it is mushroom season, and the champis on a stick – accompanied, inevitably, by a salty slice of jamón – is a crowd favorite. The shrooms’ already meaty flavor blossoms into fully-fledged fleshiness on the grill, accented by a healthy drizzle of sharp garlic sauce. We devour them with our first sip of txakoli, a very dry and slightly bubbly Basque wine.

I can relate to a people this serious about their garlic.

Occasionally the girls would even convince me to go for sweets. But when they’re this elegant, who can stand to eat them?

… what? You say that’s mango sauce? Where’s my fork?