Slowly eating England: Mint, octopus and a European union

I’ve been a bit lax on the gardening front during the first half of this year, so have been falling back on those hardy perennials—rhubarb, oregano, rosemary, nasturtiums—that continue to flourish year on year, regardless of a complete absence of loving care.

Mint is one of those herbs that grows in abundance, but I struggle to find many ways of using. It’s great with lamb, wonderful with feta and, naturally, the key to a perfect mojito. But beyond that, I’ve found few ways to make even a minor dent in this year’s crop. A note to potential growers: unless you’ve got a huge plot, it’s much more sensible to grow mint in containers. It’s in danger of overtaking my patch, and once it’s established it’s a devil to get rid of!

mint octopusWhat luck then, that on a recent trip to Spain, I was inspired by a glorious dish ordered in an Italian restaurant in Seville. Yes, I know it seems counter-intuitive to go to a pizzeria in the global home of tapas, but I had been there a while, and besides I was in the mood for a harmonious European union…

The dish was a warm salad of octopus, potatoes and tomatoes, raised to new heights by heady quantities of mint and an unctuous olive oil dressing. Octopus and potato is archetypal Northern Spanish, particularly in the regional dish of pulpo a feira; mint and potatoes is a British summer classic, usually enjoyed alongside the best spring roast lamb; and the Italian combo of capers, parsley and tomatoes takes the dish to a whole new level. I determined to recreate it when I got home, as a culinary demonstration that some things work better together. I hope you agree.

Recipe: Warm salad of mint, octopus, potatoes and tomatoes

Don’t be scared of the octopus! It’s not as tricky as you think. The hardest part may be getting hold of it, but make friends with your fishmonger and he’ll be able to get you one. Being friendly with your fishmonger has many benefits—for me, it results in bags of lobster shells and fish heads with which to make stock. And don’t be snooty about it being frozen—freezing helps tenderise the octopus, making it easier to cook.

1 frozen octopus
2 generous handfuls of small, waxy potatoes (e.g. Vivaldi, Charlotte or Jersey Royals)
½ punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved

For the dressing:
5 tbsp good olive oil
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 spring onions, sliced
2 tbsp capers, roughly chopped
1 big handful of mint, roughly chopped
1 big handful of parsley, roughly chopped

Defrost the octopus overnight or in a sink of cold water for around half an hour.

Place the octopus in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a low simmer. Cook for around 90 minutes—it could take anywhere between one and two hours depending on the size of the octopus, but you’ll know it’s ready when a knife slides easily through the thickest part of the tentacles. Take out of the water and set aside.

Next prepare the potatoes. Slice them as thinly as you can, either on a mandolin, using the slicing attachment of a food processor or by hand. Place in salted water, bring to the boil and simmer until cooked. Keep a close eye on them; once the water boils they’ll only take minutes to cook.

Cut the tomatoes in half and place on a roasting tray in the oven at 180°C until they start to go wrinkly. Remove and set aside.

Mix together all the ingredients for the dressing and season to taste. It should be oilier than a typical salad dressing with just a splash of vinegar for bite. I use mint and parsley as I have both in abundance in the garden, but you could switch up the herbs to whatever takes your fancy.

Now you are almost ready to serve—you just need to do a bit of surgery on the octopus! First remove the tentacles and set aside. If your fishmonger hasn’t already, you’ll need to remove the ‘beak’ in the centre of the octopus and the head at the base; these are useless.

Slice the tentacles and the rest of the usable octopus into smallish pieces. Wipe a griddle pan with a flavourless oil, heat and then grill the octopus pieces for a minute or so on either side. Alternatively, you can do this in the oven, but the griddle adds a slight smoky edge.

Plate everything up on a large plate, starting with the potatoes, then tomatoes, then octopus and generously drizzling the dressing all over. Serve with some good sourdough bread alongside.

Serves 4.


Photo credit (header): James Jardine