Nothing says Greek food like seafood, and nothing epitomises Greek seafood like octopus. Dive in and you'll be rewarded with memorable mezedes.
Images of clotheslines hung with octopus drying in the sun are synonymous with the Greek islands. Fishermen prepare octopus fresh from the sea by rubbing them against the rocks in a circular motion to remove some of the skin and slime, and beating them repeatedly to tenderise them before hanging them out to dry. After a day or so of drying, the octopus is ready for the char-grill. There's no better way to enjoy char-grilled octopus than outside a Greek island taverna on a sunny day, overlooking the Aegean Sea. There's still plenty of satisfaction, though, to be gained from preparing this underrated cephalopod at home, and the method we've given here makes the octopus very versatile, ready to be barbecued, pickled, or used in a salad.
Octopus is usually sold whole, but cleaning it and breaking it down is not as daunting as you might think. Your octopus is likely to have come to you via a fishmonger, and you probably don't have any large rocks to hand, so use a meat mallet to tenderise the flesh. There's a fine line between tenderising the octopus and beating it to a pulp, so hit it a few times, then check to see whether the tentacles feel as though they've lost some of their tension. If you've broken up the fibres too much, you'll be able to feel it. You're aiming for tender yet intact tentacles. (If you're preparing octopus for a big crowd, you could follow a more contemporary Greek practice and tenderise it in a concrete mixer, but that's another story.)
We recommend removing as much of the skin as possible before cooking the octopus by pulling it away with your fingers. This helps reduce the strong smell associated with cooking octopus (although some odour is unavoidable). In our testing, we also found that it helps prevent discolouration. Removing the skin after cooking, however, is easier - simply run a tea towel down the tentacles and the skin comes off. The choice is yours.
Next, cut off the head just below the eyes. (They're at the bottom of the head.) We prefer to discard the head at this point, because cleaning it is a messy job, and it doesn't yield much edible flesh relative to its large size. The beak of the octopus is at the top of the large body piece that includes the tentacles. Lift the tentacles, turn them upside down, and press inwards from the outside. The beak should pop out quite easily. Cut it out and discard it.
Cooking the octopus very slowly in simmering water is the key to keeping it tender and getting it ready for the next step. Salt the water heavily to enhance the flavour of the sea, then briefly dunk the octopus three times in the simmering water. This helps stop the tentacles from seizing up and toughening during the cooking to follow - the last thing you want is chewy tentacles. After the third dunking, add a splash of vinegar to the water. This helps to further tenderise the octopus. Simmer the octopus over low heat until it's tender (about an hour), then drain it well. At this point it's ready to be cut into pieces and then grilled on the barbecue, tossed through a Greek salad, or immersed in a pickling solution (see our pickled octopus recipe) to have on hand for a mezze on a lazy sunny afternoon.