The springtime sea is by far the most beautiful for all its colour and emotion, shared by seagulls, fishermen, lifeguards and lovers.
We used to go to the seaside for a walk, to play football or to swim in the icy waters between dives and messing around. The true purpose of going was the mirage of the red and white beach houses – sometimes blue and white – repainted by lifeguards at the start of the season. A beach house was many things for us; a bar, a trattoria, a jukebox, pinball, football table or a place from which to glance innocently at passing girls. Known as “Il bagno”, one of the lidos found at every seaside.
With our last pay cheque in our pocket, we were granted the chance of a small lunch. In the kitchen, there were always women with precious hands. These women naturally demonstrate every gesture with beauty. We would never have dreamt of raw fish or a Catalan fish stew. The holy trinity consists of seafood salad, spaghetti with clams and mixed fried fish. In my personal pagan ritual, I would overlook everything in favour of the true Goddess – heavenly fried anchovies, which I simply cannot resist.
Frying, just like grilling, is a craft in itself. It requires knowledge, skill and sensitivity, preferably with extra virgin olive oil. To check the temperature of the oil, drop a small piece of what you are frying into it and see if it sizzles. A thermometer could help, but I don’t want to use it.
The temperature of the oil is inversely proportional to the size of the piece to be fried. You can fry it dipped in just flour or in batter. Each piece must be dried well before coating in flour. The batter must be unsalted and preferably chilled to create a thermic shock when thrown into the hot oil.
You must use a black iron skillet, which must never be washed. Why? Everyone knows this; everyone should know this – especially young cooks whom I don’t know how to teach the certainty they seek. I remember this phrase, though I don’t remember from where or whom, “the biggest master doesn’t have disciples; he suggests hypotheses”.
That being said, to many I have taught an alternative route; an uphill road off the beaten path that is bumpy and gruelling, with an unknown destination. Even when I am able to see the top, it doesn’t interest me to plant a flag to signify an accomplishment. I immediately look for another direction.
I would like to say to young people, that cooking is a social commitment, cooking is a sacrifice whether you are cooking a carrot or a lobster, and the first dowry for a chef has to be respected.
But let’s return to our shack at the seaside – the seagulls fly in new patterns, showing off to the summer swimmers. We enter the kitchen and prepare another sailor’s favourite – the octopus. A fresh octopus with two rows of suckers on each tentacle, not a dormouse and not a “polpessa”. Beautiful to look at, elegant whilst it meanders through the water with its long legs, making it almost impossible to eat.
How do you clean an octopus?
Start by turning the head and removing the insides.
Turn the head again and carefully peel it; remove the teeth and hard balls at the tip of the tentacles. Leave it to boil in hot water, barely salted, dipping it in the water three times until it resembles a flower.
If you wish, you can add hot peppers, celery, carrots and some herbs. (Once it is cooked, people often put it into a plastic bottle to hold its shape, they cut it into thin slices and call it Carpaccio - may God allow our abuse of this word).
I personally like to put it into a shallow frying pan with oil, garlic and chilli peppers and let it cook in its own juices – just like it says in the song. In this case never add salt, if you must, only add it afterwards.
To soften, it doesn’t need to be beaten with all your might nor, as the legend suggests, does it need to tenderise by being placed in water surrounded by corks. You can leave it overnight to cool in the freezer to soften.
Returning to the kitchen while the octopus is boiling away, cook some small potatoes covered with salt and herbs.
Once they are cooked, cut the octopus into small pieces, season it with chopped parsley, a good squeeze of lemon, lots and lots of extra virgin olive oil.
Skin the potatoes, now cooked, chop them into small pieces and brush them with bunches of fresh thyme. A lazy girl could even steam an octopus already cleaned by her beloved fishmonger; throw it into a pressure cooker with oil, garlic, chopped potatoes and a touch of herbs. In enough time to make herself beautiful, the octopus is ready to eat and put on the table.