Bloody thing. I can't imagine what I was thinking of. It seemed a fine idea when I was standing in the queue at the fishmonger's, but now it's sitting there in the sink, cold water running over its jelly-like body and long, slimy tentacles. Worst of all is the cold, staring eye - at least I think it's an eye - following me round the kitchen while I do everything, anything, other than get on with the job in hand.
I have cleaned squid a hundred times; even skinned an eel (though never again). But an octopus is a different ball game altogether. Bigger and wobblier. A snip at £5.51 a kilo, I bought two so that we could have a few of the long gelatinous tentacles to eat warm with the new season's Spanish olive oil and brick-red paprika, then a clean-tasting salad with coriander leaves and lime juice. With the sun blazing through the windows and a hunk or two of rosemary-and-olive bread, this would be a spring lunch to remember.
Octopus takes a good hour to simmer and the wretched thing is still in the sink, grimacing at me. Why am I not surprised that these cephalopods can tell the difference between coloured balls, and were once used by fishermen to pick up buried treasure from the seabed?
I really must get on with it. I turn to Rick Stein for help: 'Turn the body inside out and pull away the entrails and bone-like strips sticking to the sides. Locate the stomach sac...' (Nothing makes me retch quite like the term 'stomach sac', especially when my fingers are ferreting round in scuzzy black stuff trying to find it. Helpfully, Mr Stein informs me that it is the size of an avocado stone.) That removed, a sea of black and tan-coloured yuck comes lolloping out over the chopping board. Then it slithers over the edge and onto the floor. Right now, nothing looks further from the crisp green and white spring lunch I had in mind.
'Wash the octopus well inside and out and then turn the body sac right side out again,' our favourite fish cook continues. I do this and end up with a neat little bathing hat of squid flesh. 'Press the beak and the soft surround out from the centre of the tentacles, cut out and discard,' the instructions continue and I follow every word, as one would. Once all the dribbly bits are in the bin, I now have a mass of exquisitely knobbly tentacles. Rinsed and sitting briefly in cold water, they are really rather beautiful and ancient-looking, like something you'd see on a fresco at the V&A. I salt my fingers and tug at the pink skin.
Plunged briefly - 'shocked' - in boiling water a couple of times before it is returned to the pot and simmered for an hour, my scary monster is looking a bit more tame. I don't cook him in plain water but with an onion cut into rings and some carrot slices and bay leaves.
I find the herbal notes of the bay go some way to lessening the pong of boiling seafood in the house.
Out of the seasoned bath and tested for tenderness by nipping off a curl of flesh, he is now a pale pink colour and fairly tender. I lay it out on an oval plate, each finger-thick digit glistening with heady, yellow-green oil and spots of rust-coloured Spanish paprika. I had been warned octopus can be tough, but this is a pussycat. The slitheriness has turned to a delicious gelatinous texture, sweeter and meatier than the little curls you find in seafood salads at deli counters. We mop up the olive oil with the soft rosemary bread, squirt lemon into the fishy juices and everyone declares it all a bit of a feast. Me, I just smile sweetly and say thank you, secretly adding the cleaning of octopuses to my list of 'never agains'.
Warm octopus salad with paprika and olive oil
Get your fishmonger to do the cleaning for you. Choose your octopus with care. The ones with two rows of suckers on their tentacles have better flavour than those with one, though they can be tougher. Ensure tenderness by freezing your cleaned octopus for a day or two before you eat him. The Greeks and Spanish fishermen bash the creature on the rocks to tenderise the flesh; modern thinking suggests the freezer is a better option. Serves 4.
2 small octopuses, each about 500-750g in weight, prepared
1 small onion
1 small carrot
3 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
For the dressing:
the juice of a lemon
1 tsp of paprika
4 tbsp olive oil
a few capers
bread to serve
Wash the cleaned octopus thoroughly under cold, running water, looking for any sand wedged in the suckers. Leave it to soak for a few minutes while you prepare the stock.
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Peel the onion and slice it thinly. Scrub the carrot and slice it into thin coins. Salt the water and add the onion, carrot, bay leaves and peppercorns.
Dunk the octopus into the boiling water. As soon as it returns to the boil, lift out the octopus, leave it for a few seconds then return it to the pan. Repeat, then leave it to simmer for 40 minutes. Test it for tenderness by slicing off a tiny piece. If it is still tough, leave to simmer for anything up to 30 minutes more. Don't give it much over an hour. If it isn't tender then, it probably won't ever be.
While the creature is cooking, make the dressing. Mix the lemon juice with the paprika and a little salt and black pepper. Whisk in the olive oil and toss in a few capers.
Drain the octopus, cut it into manageable pieces (I like to leave the tentacles whole unless they are very large) and put it in a warm bowl. Pour the dressing over and toss gently. Set aside for a few minutes before serving, with a little more paprika for dusting, passing round the olive oil bottle and bread for those who want it.
Squid or octopus salad with coriander and rocket
Maybe you have chickened out and bought a squid instead. In which case I would grill rather than boil it. Serves 3 to 4 as a main course salad.
500g prepared, freshly cooked octopus or squid
1 stalk of lemon grass
4 small spring onions
2 small, hot red chillies
3 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp lime juice
4 handfuls of rocket or other green salad leaves
Peel the outer leaves of the lemon grass and discard. Shred the tender, inner leaves very finely then tip them into a bowl. Shred the onions, then the chillies, discarding the seeds if you wish. Add the coriander leaves, the fish sauce, sugar and lime juice then mix together. Chop the octopus or squid into rough chunks then toss it in the dressing. Season gently with salt and serve piled on the rocket leaves.
· Nigel Slater will be away for the next two weeks.