When I think of a typical Greek image I think of blue skies, blue seas… and clothing lines full of octopi. If you’ve ever visited one of the Greek islands you’ve surely seen this image – at the very least on a postcard. When planning on grilling an octopus, Greeks often hang the eight-limbed creatures side-by-side on a line to dry under the hot rays of the Mediterranean sun for a couple of hours, which is done to enhance the flavor and texture of the meat and to make it more suitable for the grill. Indeed, when holidaying on one of Greece’s beautiful islands, a tender, slightly charred grilled octopus tentacle is a must try for seafood lovers.
But octopus is not just for grilling. And despite it being summer-y weather over here in Greece for most of the year, it’s not always sunny. So, what can one do to fulfill one’s octopus cravings during these colder months? Enter another traditional Greek octopus dish, maybe more fitting for home cooking and the winter months: octopus stifado (χταπόδι στιφάδο).
The Greek word ‘στιφάδο’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘τύφος’ (ατμός) meaning steam, though the only ‘steaming’ that happens with this dish is when you lift the lid off of the pot, releasing the fragrant steam coming of the dish – stifado is actually a slowly cooked stew. And now that the days are getting darker and colder, I don’t think there is anything more enjoyable than a nice, hot stew full of sweet onions, warming spices, and tender pieces of octopus.
Disagree? You don’t share my love for octopus, or find the prospect of handling it’s eight limbs a bit daunting? Being a stew, stifado is one of those traditional Greek classics that can be made with any kind of meat – lamb, beef, chicken, or rabbit. Really, essentially, it’s the spices and generous use of pearl onions, sweet and soft, that makes a stifado so comforting and hearty. So, if you are one of those people grossed out by octopus-tentacles (I will politely, but firmly have to ask you to leave my blog. Kidding. Kind of.) the octopus in this recipe can easily be replaced by a different protein.
Having said that, I really hope you came to read this recipe intrigued by this delicious octopus version. While badly done octopus can be chewy and rubbery, octopus is really amazing when cooked properly (I don’t have to tell you that, though, right?). Yes, it can be a bit tricky to cook well, going from tender and juicy to rubbery and chewy in mere minutes, but with a little bit of patience you can put amazingly tender octopus on the table easily. Pinky swear.
In Greece, one way to tenderize the meat is by bashing the octopus against the rocks near where it’s been caught. However, since I do not have big rocks at home and I am not sure if you do, an hour (more or less) of stewing in a mixture of wine, tomato, vinegar and onions should do the trick just fine. Don’t worry if you can’t find fresh octopus, by the way, for this recipe it is perfectly fine to use frozen octopus. Some people even claim that the freezing process actually tenderizes the meat a little (meaning: reduces the cooking time! Yay!). Just make sure the octopus is fully thawed before using it.
Important final note: my recipe below is for the stifado alone, but this dish is usually never served as is. Often, it’s served with some small, short pasta such as ditalini, or orzo, but it can also be served with some (fried) potatoes, or a simple piece of bread. If you’re trying out this recipe, make sure to serve it with some pasta (about 400g for 4 people), potato, or at least some crusty bread for dipping. I’ve added this serving suggestion as a small note down in the recipe as well.
[The measurements of some ingredients of the recipe below have been slightly adjusted on 22/02/2019]
Octopus Stifado / Χταπóδι Στιφáδο (Greek Octopus and Onion Stew)
- 1 – 1,5kg octopus, cleaned
- 750g pearl onions, or baby shallots, peeled
- 50ml red wine vinegar
- 250ml water
- 3 bay leaves
- 150ml olive oil
- 1 small red onion, finely grated
- 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 6 allspice berries
- 6 cloves
- Small pinch of cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
- 70g tomato paste (one small tin) (or a bit less if you don't plan on serving the dish with pasta)
- 250ml red wine
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- 400g ditalini, or orzo*
- *this dish is usually never served as is, and is often served mixed with some small shaped pasta, or alongside some potato fries. I suggest boiling 400g of ditalini (or pasta of choice) and mixing it through the octopus stew right before serving.
- Prepare the octopus. Remove the intestines and insides of the octopus by folding the body inside out, or by making a small cut at the back. Scrub the outer skin with a bit of coarse salt until all the little suckers are clean. Rinse the octopus under cold running water.
- Place a large pot on medium-high heat and add 250ml of water, 50ml red wine vinegar and the bay leaves. Add the cleaned octopus to the pot and close the pot with a lid. The octopus will release some fluids so make sure to use big enough pot. Cook the octopus for 10 minutes.
- When the octopus is cooked, turn off the heat and remove the octopus with some tongs. Place octopus on a cutting board. Do NOT throw away the fluids and bay leaves, they will be used later!
- When the octopus is cool enough to handle, cut it into pieces by separating the tentacles from the body and each other (remove the beak in the middle) and by cutting the body into large chunks. I like to keep the tentacles whole, but most people prefer to cut the tentacles into bite-size pieces. You do you.
- Prepare the onions and sauce: add olive oil to a Dutch oven, or large high-rimmed pan. Bake the pearl onions (peeled, but kept whole) on medium-high heat until browned on all sides and slightly tender. When the onions have softened, add the pieces of octopus to the pan, followed by the grated red onion, chopped garlic, allspice berries, cloves, cinnamon, dried oregano, and dried thyme. Sauté for 1 minute until fragrant.
- Turn down the heat to low and add the tomato paste, red wine and the cooking liquid of the octopus and bay leaves from earlier. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer on low heat for at least an hour, or until the octopus is tender (with a very large octopus it can take up to 1.5 - 2 hours). When the octopus is soft and the sauce has thickened it is ready to serve!