Purpetielli affogati, or Braised Baby Octopus is one of Naples’ favorite dishes. Octopus is a popular food all around the Mediterranean basin and yet elsewhere it is often, for some reason, ‘controversial’. Many people who will happily scarf down fried calamari will shudder at the thought of eating its close cousin, which is too bad, because octopus is one of the finest fruits of the sea. When properly cooked, it is perfectly delicious, tasting much like squid but… more so, with a deeper flavor, almost ‘gamey’, in a good way. It is also very affordable.
The main issue with octopus is toughness. Large octopus needs to be cooked for a very long time, and they are often beaten beforehand, a bit like tripe, for tenderize them. But baby octopus is another story. It needs long slow cooking, but 45 minutes to an hour is often enough for the smallest varieties. Slightly more mature octopus is sometimes also sold as ‘baby’ octopus, so cooking times may vary. Like squid, octopus also need to be cleaned (see Notes below) but more often than not they are sold pre-cleaned. Or you can ask your friendly fishmonger to clean them for you. Once they’re clean, rinse them well and set them in a bowl until you are ready to begin cooking.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) baby octopus
- 500g (1 lb) canned tomatoes
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- Olive oil
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
- Red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
Place your baby octopus, whole, into a pot (traditionally terracotta but enameled cast iron or even a heavy stainless or copper pot will do fine) together with about half as much by weight of canned tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil, some chopped garlic, a dash of salt and, if you want a little heat, some red pepper flakes.
Cover tightly and simmer over lowish heat for 45 minutes to an hour. By this time, the octopus should be tender and the sauce should be nice and thick, and rather darker than when it started. If the octopus is done but the sauce still rather thin, which can happened since octopus tend to shed liquid while cooking, you can fish them out of the sauce and continue reducing until you have the right consistency, then add the octopus back in to heat up again. If, on the other hand, the sauce has reduced but the octopus still needs some more cooking, then just add a bit of water and continue simmering. About 5-10 minutes before the dish is done, add some chopped parsley.
Serve your Braised Baby Octopus hot, with a bit of the sauce and, if you like, some more parsley and/or a drizzle of olive oil on top.
A bit like a pizzaiola, the red sauce from this dish makes a delicious dressing for pasta. If you want more sauce, you can up the ratio of tomato to octopus from 1:2 to 1:1. The pasta could be served as a primo before the octopus or at a separate meal.
You can also use a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking time. It should take about 20-30 minutes after it comes up to pressure. You will then need to simmer it for a few minutes to reduce the sauce, since there is much less evaporation when cooking under pressure.
The august Jeane Caròla Francesconi includes a recipe for Braised Baby Octopus in her masterwork, La cucina napoletana. She is very adamant that you should make sure that the lid should be tight when simmering, and suggests using a piece of waxed paper (you could also use aluminum foil) to ensure a seal. And she admonishes the reader not to open the lid during the simmering. Not sure why but I won’t question her wisdom! Of course, this is not an issue when using a pressure cooker.
As mentioned, the only tricky part of cooking octopus is the preliminary cleaning of the octopus, which is to say removing the inedible bits. You need essentially to remove its ‘mouth’, which is located on its underside, at the center of its tentacles. This can be done fairly easily with a paring knife. You then remove the ink sack (most but not all octupus have one) and any viscera through the resulting hole. (Be careful not to puncture the ink sac, as you will wind up with black ooze all over the place!)