Cooking at home with octopus

As much as I love dining out and fully surrendering myself to professionals for an exquisite restaurant experience, I would choose to be on the giving side any day.  Cooking for friends and loved ones and bringing everybody together for a fun meal is how I love to enjoy life.  Food, wine and laughter are my joie de vivre, and I am fortunate to be able to have such experiences with my friend Haru Kishi, the Executive Chef of Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

Our mutual love for cooking and entertaining has culminated in many wonderful dinners shared with our ever expanding community of good friends.  We choose a theme ingredient for our dinners and get inspiration from the farmers market to construct a seasonal menu around it.  Black truffles, white truffles, lobster, lamb, duck and suckling pig are some of the themes that we have tackled, all ending in delicious memorable fêtes.  This time we chose octopus, and as usual Chef Kishi took charge of the theme ingredient while I filled in with other courses.  Although he hadn’t finalized his octopus dishes until the morning of the dinner, I started planning the other courses around a Spanish theme, our inspiration being pulpo a la gallega, a popular traditional Galician dish of tender octopus with paprika, olive oil and salt.

We found some beautiful purple potatoes and heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market that morning to complement the 3 octopuses that we got.  In addition, a visit to Wally’s Cheese Box, which is right around the corner from where I live, turned out an exquisite selection of cheeses to serve to our gathering of chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists and musicians who all brought delicious wines for the dinner.

The cheese board featured Fol Epi, Gres des Vosges, Mini Epoisse and a delectable Gorgonzola Dolce generously drizzled with truffle honey, one of my all-time favorite pairings that I frequently serve at parties. Accoutrements of Creminelli black truffle salami, farmers market nectarines, seedless grapes and fig & olive crackers went fast as the wine and conversation flowed ever so freely.

Kalamata olives rings were balanced on top of flattened cut ends of purple seedless grapes, then tressed with dollops of marinated feta cheese and parsley leaves, a painstakingly precise micro operation that took a lot of patience.  The end result was an army of beautiful little savory soldiers, standing at attention in perfect rows and saluting our guests of honor.

I also made little pintxos of Idiazabal cheese and pearl onions caramelized with Marsala wine, assembled on skewers and drizzled with a warm saba reduction.

Meanwhile the octopus, which had been braising all day to absolute tenderness, was quickly pan seared and cubed in preparation for Chef Kishi’s first octopus dish.  Half of the purple potatoes were cubed and seasoned with pimenton dulce, while the other half was puréed with cream, emulsified with olive oil and loaded into the spuma gun for a warm potato foam.

Skinned and apple balsamic vinegar-marinated cherry tomatoes were tossed with tender octopus and purple potato cubes, then topped with the luscious creamy purple potato foam and a sprinkling of pimenton dulce for an amazing dish of complex flavors and textures.  Chef Kishi’s modern take on pulpo a la gallega was an inspiration, and we all dug our spoons into the warm potato foam and noshed in unison.

Jamon Serrano chips were made the night before by dehydrating them very slowly over 3 hours in the oven at low temperature.  The crispy savory ham chips, with a wonderful concentrated saltiness, were the perfect garnish for the Canary melon gazpacho dish served with a dash of Piment d’Espelette powder.

Simple is best when it comes to good quality ingredients, and the juicy pineapple and green zebra heirloom tomatoes were arranged on a long platter with basil leaves and fresh creamy burratta.  Large pyramid shaped crystals of black volcanic lava salt, aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil were all that I used to bring these beautiful flavors alive in the vibrant salad dish.

Braised octopus legs were tightly rolled together in saran wrap and set in the fridge to glue them together.  This octopus sausage of sorts was thinly sliced to make axial wheels that resembled geometric flowers.  Chef Kishi constructed a gorgeous octopus carpaccio course using these octopus wheels, fresh dorade ceviche, yuzu juice, sudachi juice, puréed plums, apples, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro and olive oil.  Colorful bite sized arrangements of carpaccio were served on a Himalayan pink salt tablet that was chilled in the freezer, itself imparting a subtle saltiness to the food as it slowly melted.

Left over dorade trimmings and bones were made into an elegant and richly flavored fish broth with cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, star anise and bay leaves.  The clear warm broth was served in small shot glasses- a warm, inviting and comforting moment of solace before the final octopus dish by Chef Kishi.

While all 3 interpretations of octopus were amazing that evening, my favorite was Chef Kishi’s octopus bolognese, a hearty pasta dish made with finely chopped octopus to mimic the ground meat texture of traditional bolognese ragu.  Octopus trimmings, mostly from the head, were finely chopped and pan fried to give it a quick sear and a deep roasted flavor.

The octopus was combined with a base of chopped garlic, onions and olive oil, and reduced with cava that one of the guests brought.  Sun dried tomato paste and grated Roma tomatoes were added, then reduced on the stove to concentrate the flavors.  Tossed with squiggly radiatori pasta, the perfect medium for this hearty sauce to cling to, the bolognese was served family style in a deep dish Dutch oven.  With the texture of bolognese and the flavor of vongole, this final entrée by Chef Kishi was the stand out dish of the evening.

We concluded the meal with dulce de leche ice cream served on a carpet of chocolate crumble, with sweet farmers market raspberries and ginger vanilla bean crème brûlée, all made the evening before for easy assembly. The intense smokey caramel sweetness of the ice cream with the crunchy dark chocolate crumbles was a great combination to end this spectacular meal with.

Empty wine bottles and plates licked clean may signify a good meal, but my barometer for a good party is different: when strangers meet at the beginning of the evening with handshakes, and leave with hugs and exchanged contact information.  When old friends make deeper connections over wine and intimate conversation.  When everybody roars with laughter over funny jokes.  When we make toasts with every new bottle of wine that we open.  When we all take out our planners to see when we can do this all over again.

What will our next theme be?  I hope you will be joining us for dinner.

Random trivia: Did you know that some octopuses, when under attack, can perform arm autotomy? This is a form of self amputation of one of their 8 arms to serve as a distraction to predators.  They are able to regenerate this part of their body.