After last week’s magnum opus, I want to share a simple, easy to prepare recipe with you this week. If you’re a seafood lover, this will be pure comfort food: polpo in umido con le patate, or Octopus and Potato Stew. The dish is often associated with the region of Puglia, although you’ll find versions of stewed octopus, such as Naples’ classic polpo alla luciana, all over the Boot.
The recipe could scarcely be simpler. The octopus is cut into pieces and braised in a simple tomato sauce until tender, infusing the sauce with its briny goodness. And although you can serve the braised octopus just like that, I like to add potatoes. They add some heft and a pleasant contrasting softness to the octopus’s chewy texture.
Simple, tasty and very satisfying. What more could you ask for on a cold winter’s day?
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) octopus (fresh or frozen and thawed, see Notes), trimmed and cut into largish serving pieces
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 1 bottle of tomato passata
- white wine
- 500g (1 lb) yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
- olive oil
- A sprig or two of parsley, finely minced
- A pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
In a large braiser preferably made of terracotta, or in a cast iron Dutch oven, sauté gently the onions in abundant olive oil until soft and translucent. Take care not to brown the onion, add a few drops of water to prevent browning and speed cooking.
Now add the garlic and the stems of the parsley, along with the red pepper flakes if using, giving everything a stir. Sauté for just a few moments.
Add the octopus pieces and turn them in the soffritto. Add a splash of white wine, then cover and let the octopus simmer for about half an hour. It should turn a dark violet color and release quite a bit of its juices as it simmers. Remove the parsley stems.
Add the tomato passata and let simmer for a further 30 minutes, or until the octopus is almost tender. Adding a drizzle of water as needed from time to time to prevent things from drying out.
Now add the potatoes and mix them in with the octopus. Top up with enough water to barely cover the potatoes. Let octopus and potatoes simmer for another 15 minutes or so, or until both are fully tender and the sauce well reduced.
Add the minced parsley leaves and stir again and turn off the heat.
Serve while stir warm, topped with some more minced parsley for color if you like.
Choosing and prepping the octopus
Most recipes for polpo in umido call for a large but not huge octopus weighing about 1 kilo (2 lbs) each. Some fish mongers will sell much larger octopus, ones that weigh has much as four pounds. While I don’t recommend it, if that’s what you can find, you’ll need to increase your cooking time accordingly.
An octopus of this size needs to be trimmed of its inedible bits: the eyes, which you’ll find in the middle of its body between the head and tentacles, its beak, which is found on its underside where the tentacles attach to its body, and the viscera, inside the head. The trimmed octopus is then rinsed any ink. The tentacles are then cut into lengths, while the head is cut into rings or bite-sized chunks. This video from Jamie Oliver shows you the process. Some cooks prefer to cook their octopus whole, provided the animal isn’t overly large, and cut it up before serving.
If you want to make your life a bit simpler, feel free to use frozen octopus. It will generally be sold pre-trimmed, often just the tentacles without the head. There is nothing wrong with using frozen octopus in my book. In fact, you’ll find Italian recipes that recommend home cooks to freeze fresh octopus for a day or two before using, as the freezing helps tenderize the octopus.
Frozen octopus sometimes comes pre-cooked. While you will lose a bit in the flavor department, you can make it work for this recipe. That said, it is a time-saver. Skip the initial 15 minute simmering. Just sauté the octopus briefly in the onion and garlic soffritto, then add the passata and let it reduce for 5-10 minutes or so, then add the potatoes and let them cook for another 10 minutes.
You can also use baby octopus, which needs no trimming. Reduce the cooking time to say 30-45 minutes total. And unless they’re quite small to begin with, cut the potatoes into small pieces rather than wedges.
The tomato sauce
The tomato can take different forms. You can use canned tomatoes, crushed between your fingers, or passata as recommended here or, in season fresh, either made into homemade passata or simply cut into chunks. I’ve even seen recipes that call for tomato paste diluted in water. Each has it charms. The passata will give you the more assertively tomato-y dish, fresh tomatoes the lightest. If using fresh tomatoes, make sure they are fully ripe, deep red and full of flavor. Anything less and you’re better off using canned or bottled.
While this recipe calls for a well reduced sauce that clings to the main ingredients, the dish can be made saucier. Just add more tomato or thin the sauce out with water. The extra sauce can be soaked up with crusty bread (absolutely delicious if toasted and drizzled with olive oil) or used to dress pasta.
Though many Italian recipes for polpo in umido don’t specify type, I prefer to use firm-fleshed yellow potatoes for this dish. I prefer their firmer texture, while mealy potatoes like Russets will tend to fall apart as they cook. For the same reason, I hold back the potatoes until the final minutes of simmering, though you’ll see recipes where the potatoes go in much earlier, something along with the octopus.
I also like to cut the potatoes to match (more or less) the size of your octopus pieces. It’s purely aesthetic but I think it adds to the appeal of the dish.
While I like the pure flavors that come from a simple onion and garlic soffritto and perhaps a pinch of red pepper, you can mix things up a bit by throwing a few anchovies, olives and/or capers into the sauce, or a few sage leaves or bay leaves. I’ve seen some recipes calling for spices like paprika as well. The soffritto can vary as well. It can be just garlic only, or garlic and parsley, to the Holy Trinity of onion, carrot and celery. The wine can be red rather than white, or you can omit it altogether if you prefer.
If you like, you can also add peas to the dish, either instead of the potatoes or along with them.
And if you hold back the potatoes and cut the octopus into small pieces, you can use your stewed octopus as a sugo di polpo (octopus sauce) for pasta.
This same recipe works quite well with cuttlefish and squid. Just tweak the simmering time if need be. They can take as little as 30-45 total minutes of simmering, but taste test to make sure. Indeed, squid and peas stew is a classic of Roman cookery.
Polpo in umido
- 1 kilo 2 lbs octopus fresh or frozen and thawed, trimmed and cut into largish serving pieces
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 1-2 cloves garlic peeled and chopped
- 1 bottle tomato passata
- white wine
- 500g 1 lb yellow potatoes peeled and cut into wedges
- olive oil
- 1-2 sprigs parsley finely minced
- A pinch of red pepper flakes optional
- In a large braiser preferably made of terracotta, or in a cast iron Dutch oven, sauté gently the onions in abundant olive oil until soft and translucent.
- Add the garlic, along with the red pepper flakes if using, giving everything a stir. Sauté for just a few moments.
- Add the octopus pieces and turn them in the soffritto. Add a splash of white wine, then cover and let the octopus simmer for about half an hour.
- Add the tomato passata and let simmer for a further 30 minutes, or until the octopus is almost tender, adding a drizzle of water if need be to prevent things from drying out.
- Add the potatoes and mix them in with the octopus. Top up with enough water to barely cover the potatoes. Let octopus and potatoes simmer for another 15 minutes or so, or until both are fully tender and the sauce well reduced.
- Add the minced parsley and stir again and turn off the heat.
- Serve while stir warm, topped with some more minced parsley for color if you like.