Pulpo a la Gallega (Octopus in the Galician Style) is one of the most famous dishes in Spain. In Galicia it’s actually known as “polvo a’ feira,” which, in Galego, means “octopus in the market style,” referring to the pulperías that set up in the outdoor markets. The pulpería is one of my favorite destinations every year when we visit Rosa’s family in Pontevedra, a beautiful, two thousand year old city on the Galician coast. There, you sit outside under giant tents, at long tables, while the octopi are boiled in enormous pots, and right out of the water, cut with scissors onto the traditional wooden plates. The pulpería is a whole experience worthy of its own blog post here, which I fully intend to write in the future. I can’t get the pictures to do it justice right now, though, with travel restrictions keeping me in the USA.
In the standard, traditional preparation, the octopus is first tenderized by beating against a board or table. It’s then boiled in salted water until tender, and, when cooked to appropriate tenderness, cut up and served hot, drizzled with olive oil and topped with Pimentón de la Vera. It’s often, though not always, served on top of potatoes boiled in the cooking liquid from the pulpo.
You may have noticed that I didn’t title this recipe by either of the common names used in Spain. That’s because, though I love to serve it the traditional way, my preparation method is quite different.
I have been cooking octupus (pulpo) for a lot of years, and my octopus game was pretty strong before I ever visited Spain. I originally learned how to cook octopus while working for a chef that ran a Greek restaurant. Then 6 or 7 years ago, I was eating dinner at a wine bar run by a Japanese chef friend, Shingo Katsura, who I had worked with once upon a time. He served me an octopus course where the texture and flavor was just awesome – the best I had ever tried. I let him know it, and then immediately insisted that he teach me how he did it. His method, a mix of classic Japanese and French techniques, has been what I’ve used ever since. The method here is more or less the same technique he taught me, as it has evolved in my kitchen in recent years.
Though I most often finish the pulpo in the classic Galician way, with just good extra virgin olive oil and pimentón, I also prepare it using this same technique for grilled octopus dishes. If you want to grill the pulpo, you´ll need to cool it down overnight, before grilling it from cold, though, or it will fall apart on the grill.
I generally use a 4-6 lb octopus. They are the most commonly available size where I live, and the size lends itself well to cooking for 4 or 5 people at a time. You may need to adjust cooking time for octopi of significantly different sizes, and you’ll need a very big pot to cook a much bigger octopus.
For Poaching liquid (court bouillon)
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
3 ribs celery, broken or cut in large pieces
1 carrot, peeled, broken or cut in large pieces
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 or 3 bay leaves
½ cup white wine
One 4-6 lb octopus, innards removed (they generally come this way), rinsed and patted dry.
¼ cup salt
1 large or 2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut in rough 1” pieces
Extra virgin olive oil
Pimentón de la vera (dulce)
1. Make the court bouillon: Get a large stockpot hot on a medium-high flame. Add the vegetables and spices, and let them get a little color for a minute or two, stirring a few times. Add the wine, scraping up any bits that stuck to the bottom of the pot. When the wine is mostly reduced away, add water and salt, filling the pot about ¾ of the way up. Bring the pot to a boil and let simmer for at least 30 minutes (and up to about 60 minutes). Strain the vegetables out, keeping only the liquid, and add a little bit of salt. Don’t make the liquid too salty, as you will also impart some salt directly into the octopus before cooking.
2. Prepare the octopus: while the court bouillon is simmering, rinse off the octopus in cold water, shaking off the excess, then place it in a wide casserole or baking dish. Take about a teaspoon of salt in your hand, and rub it into one of the tentacles, using your fingers to firmly massage it into the muscle for about 30 seconds. Focus more on the meatier part of the tentacle, closer to the head, but try to get the whole tentacle. Repeat this process for each of the 8 tentacles.
After you have massaged the salt into all 8 tentacles, again rinse the octopus, this time to remove any excess salt clinging to the octopus. Again, shake off any excess water. The octopus is now ready to cook as soon as the court bouillon is ready.
3. Cook the octopus: Bring the liquid to a rapid boil on a high flame. Hold the octopus by the head, and, without letting go, CAREFULLY hold the octopus in the water for about a minute. (All of the tentacles and some of the head should be dipped). Remove and sit in a pan or plate, while the water returns to a boil. When the liquid is rapidly boiling again, carefully lower the octopus back into the pot. As the water resumes rapidly boiling, lower heat to keep a simmer.
Let the octopus cook for about an hour and ten minutes and then begin to test it for doneness. To test doneness, carefully lift it from the liquid using tongs or a spider, and poke the fat part of a tentacle, near the body, with a paring knife. If the knife easily penetrates, and it feels tender, the octopus is done and can be removed. If not, return to the liquid and continue cooking.
It usually takes about 90 minutes to cook the octopus properly, but there are a lot of variables, so you need to pay attention! Another clue: the skin will just barely start to brake up as the octopus reaches doneness. If this skin is all completely disintegrating, then you likely went too far.
4. If serving with potatoes, take enough cooking liquid from the pot to cover the potatoes in a small pot. Add a generous pinch of salt and bring the pot to a boil, and cook until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and let steam out for a couple minutes and they are ready to serve.
5. To finish and serve: When the octopus is done cooking, there are two options.
If you want to serve immediately, you can use kitchen scissors or a sharp knife to cut them directly onto a serving plate. First, put the potatoes on plate (if using). Add the pulpo and top them with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil and pimentón. Serve hot immediately.
If not serving immediately, place the octopus, whole on a tray or large plate to cool down. When cooled, cover and place in the fridge overnight. To serve, you can dip for a minute in boiling water, then proceed as above, or cut into pieces, then warm in a sauté pan with the oil, before serving topped with the pimentón. You can also grill the whole tentacles straight from the fridge, then slice them up to serve.