It took me almost a week to take down my Christmas decorations. What with last weekend being my partner’s 30th, I had to risk superstition and undress each Christmas tree, one evening at a time this week after work. Finally, on Thursday night, I put away the last strand of tinsel and wrapped the last of my vast bauble collection and started turning my mind to the summer.
It’s not the easiest of tasks when a glimpse outside of the window presents a vision of dreary grey England, leafless trees straining to hold onto their roots in a blustery winter wind, and people wrapped head to toe in their winter woolies. Yet while the eyes may face the disappointment of a continuing wintery outlook, the other senses remain open to the invitation of an early summer. And so, to my kitchen I have headed, ready to tempt my taste buds and my nose with the smells and flavours of a verdant green and azul blue summer. For in my opinion, there is nothing quite like bringing the food of the Mediterranean into your home to kick away those winter blues.
At Christmas I received a beautifully presented cookbook (after much well-placed hinting), Polpo, a book of Venetian-based cuisine flaunting the flavours of that deeply charismatic little island and the delicate tastes of the Adriatic beyond. The book is a collection of recipes from the London based eatery of the same name, whose philosophy is simple: to capture the essence of the Venetian backstreets, where quaint little bacari serve a plethora of deceptively simple but delicious Italian treats.
I couldn’t wait to delve into this book, littered as it is with sumptuous views of Venice, and offering some 140 recipes inspired by the dazzling city. It is perhaps no coincidence that the first recipe I tried was the very thing that the restaurant was named after: octopus, or polpo. However, it wasn’t actually the book which engendered this desire to eat polpo. Rather, having spent the last two nights occupied in another of my winter-beating activities, looking for summer holidays, my search through holiday deals in the South of France and the Italian riviera brought to mind a delicious yet simple dish of polpo with potatoes which I devoured, with a glass of chilled prosecco, in San Vincenzo in Tuscany last summer. This was my inspiration, and to my great pleasure, Polpo had a recipe which was perfect in fulfilling my desire to recreate that hot July day in January.
San Vincenzo’s version of the salad
and the Prosecco
So, to make a warm octopus salad, you need (for 4 persons) a medium sized octopus. Frozen is as good as any, not least because this helps to tenderise the flesh. I got mine from the local fishmongers, although it was Spanish in origin, and weighed in at 1.5kg. Defrost the octopus (and if it’s not frozen, consider freezing it first to get it nice and tender) and place in a large pan of unsalted water with a couple of roughly chopped celery sticks, the stalks of a bunch of parsley, an onion chopped in half, and a fennel bulb also chopped in half. This should be simmered for around 40-60 minutes until a fork can easily pierce the flesh. Mine was closer to 40 mins. Watch out you don’t overcook it.
Meanwhile, peel and chop 3-4 waxy potatoes into bite sized pieces and simmer until cooked. Again make sure these aren’t over cooked. They need to hold their shape, not crumble.
Beautiful raw octopus
The octopus cooking
When the octopus is done, chop it into bite sized pieces, removing the eyes, claw etc if you still have them on, and remove as much of the slimey under skin layer if you can (you can leave the nice pink skin around the tentacles – it’s the best bit). Rinse these pieces under clean warm water and place in a large bowl with your cooked potatoes, a finely chopped clove of garlic, a handful of chopped parsley, a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes, a good glug of good quality olive oil (mine comes direct from said town in Tuscany) and the juice of around half a lemon. Season well and serve.
The finished dish
The flavours of the Med (and Venice, I suppose) are just sublime, and guaranteed to brighten any cold winter’s day with the thoughts of the summer. Right, I’m off to book that summer holiday…