Saturday, May 8, 2010

Inaugurating the club

If you think these pictures look like the blurry photography of gal swinging a glass wine in one hand and a camera in the other, you'd be right.

For the record, there were also several glasses-worth of wine in the photographer's belly. And she's telling lots of really funny jokes.

Right. It’s me. I'm the photographer.

In April, I hosted the first Cookbook Club. At least, it’s the first one I’ve ever been in.

Here's what happens. There is a Club. We like to cook. The evening’s host picks a cookbook a few weeks ahead of time. Everybody reads it, and then we schedule a grand'ol dinner, pot-luck style, with food from that very book. Easy peasy.

The book was Falling Cloudberries, by Tessa Kiros. I've talked about her on this blog before.

Here's what we ended up with, a few Sundays ago.

Beth made some delicious dolmades, which we dipped in some very, very fatty yogurt.

Annie made a spicy, cilantro and chickpea salad. Dynamite.

Andi roasted some beautiful vegetables—bell peppers, tomatoes and zucchini—stuffed with rice and minced meat.

Mika did some slow chicken roasting. It was sweet and deep flavoured, with some lovely little potato wedges.

For dessert, Lauren made the happiest cake I’ve ever seen.

As for me, I did something I’ve never done before. I made a freaking-octopus-goddamned stew! WAH! It had so many more legs than I do. I was terrified. It's a tremendous creature, and it lounged on my kitchen counter, thawing, all afternoon. I didn't really think I could do it, honestly.

Lucky for me, I combined the forces of good wine in my belly, and good wine in the stew (Andrew gasped when he saw me pour a cup and a half of $20 wine into the pot). Caramalized pearl onions, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, simmered and spiced up the whole kitchen. The result was tender (tender!) octopus meat, sweet onions, and a broth I've never quite tasted before. It was savory, meaty, and mulled. And it was soaked up beautifully into some home-baked bread. I’m crazy about it.

I’m adapting Tessa Kiros’ recipe a tad, reducing the liquid components. In fact, we all agreed that her recipes are lovely, but call for more liquid than they really need. That collective knowledge makes us all better cooks.

Octopus Stifado
Adapted from a recipe in Tessa Kiros’ Falling Cloudberries

Serves 6-7

One 4-pound whole octopus, gutted
2/3 cup olive oil
3 lbs pearl onions, peeled, but kept whole
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsps red wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic, chopped
A 16 oz can of whole, peeled tomatoes, tomatoes roughly chopped and juice included
1 ½ cups red wine
2 bay leaves
1 tsp crushed dried red chili
A pinch of grated nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 allspice berries

First, clean the octopus. Slice the head off as one disk, below the eyes, and discard. Most of the innards type bits should be gone, so cut the tentacles and central body into chunks of about 1 inch. Discard any leftover organs from the central part of the body. Set the meat aside.

Heat ½ cup of the olive oil in a large wok or heavy skillet on a very gentle heat. You’ll be caramelizing the pearl onions. Add the onions, and cook slowly, on low to medium-low. Stir them gently, and be careful not to break them up. When they are light golden, add the sugar and vinegar, and continue gently tossing them around. This can take up to an hour, on very low heat. They should be sweet, soft, and deeply golden. The sauce should also be quite thick.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy bottomed pot (used a round Dutch oven, if you’ve got) without any oil, on high heat. Throw the octopus chunks in and stir, over high heat, for about three minutes. The meat will turn bright, and create a lot of liquid. Reduce to medium high, cover, and cook for an additional 10 minutes, stirring every so often.

If there is a lot of “octopus liquid,” drain the meat. Add the remaining olive oil and garlic, and sauté until just fragrant, on medium heat. Add the tomatoes and their juice, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the wine, bay leaves, chile, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, as well as some salt and pepper to taste. Add 2 or 3 cups or so of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered for about 20 minutes.

Stir in the caramelized onions, cover the pan, and simmer for another 10-20 minutes. Gently stir occasionally, so that nothing sticks to the bottom. Let it sit for as long as half an hour, and serve in shallow bowls, with olive oil bread.