Summertime, and the fresh produce is flawless. The seasonal ingredient you should be cooking with this August is celery. Surprising, I know, as celery is a long-season crop, but it’s in its peak this month. Whether it’s a rib submerged in a classic Beer Mary on my porch overlooking Lake Michigan’s sweet serenity, or whirled in a cold, creamy soup for my family during breaks from the water, celery is incorporated daily in our meals throughout the month.
The art of perfect summer food pairing is found, I have realized, when matching celery with octopus. The first few bites of crisp, salty celery ribs and sweet celery heart mixed with tender octopus, lightly dressed in vinegar and olive oil opened my culinary senses as a chef years ago. Today, with impressive presentation all the way from Baffo in Chicago to Babbo in New York City and at all of our restaurants in between, octopus is always a crowd pleaser on the menu. Regardless, most at home cooks who order octopus in our restaurants find the seafood too daunting to attempt in their own kitchens.
Try not to let a few legs and a head stop you from reigning as king of the dinner party with this perfect summer salad. It’s easier than you think and this dish will single handedly help you conquer your fears of cooking with octopus. It will cook down rather considerably, so keep in mind that a three pounder will serve six generously as a first course.
Beginners should look for frozen octopus in your grocery store or buy fresh, already prepared-to-cook octopus from the local fishmonger. This means that your fishmonger already removed the sac, beak and eyes for you. Don’t feel discouraged if you go the frozen route; sometimes frozen actually comes out more tender than fresh because the thawing process commences tenederizing. No matter the route you choose, adding a wine cork to the braising liquid while cooking will also help tenderize the octopus.
After poaching, let the octopus cool completely while still in the liquid to keep tender and flavorful. Remove the skin simply by rubbing it with a paper towel, but you will need to use a knife to remove the suckers. If they fall off on their own, you have cooked the octopus too long. Even still, just pay more mind to keeping the tentacles in tact while cutting into one-inch pieces.
The literal definition of August is “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur.” I think you’ll find that octopus and celery antipasto reigns true of exactly that. And please don’t even fathom tossing away the celery leaves. The leaves give pasta, whole grains and salad a crisp, celery-scented pick-me-up so spectacular at the end of summer.