The Octopus Adventure

My culinary adventure began when Noelle, the publisher of Edible Cleveland, sent out a call for an intrepid soul to test a recipe. The soul needed to be brave because the recipe was actually eight different recipes tucked inside the big event, featuring an unusual ingredient: octopus. Plus there were multiple techniques involved—sous vide, brining, making jelly and emulsions. It called for making mayonnaise and mustard from scratch, as well as making one’s own powdered milk. This wasn’t a recipe for the casual weekday cook, but Noelle wanted to make sure it could be replicated by an adventurous cook at home.

I eagerly volunteered because I knew it was going to be an amazing opportunity to work with Chef Jamie Simpson of Chef’s Garden and the Culinary Vegetable Institute.

I headed to CVI to pick up some of the ingredients including the octopus, which Chef Jamie sources from the only wind-powered octopus farm in the world.

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At Chef’s Garden, I was greeted with enthusiasm and huge smiles by Chef Jamie and the Chef de Cuisine Ulfet Uzyabasligil Ralph. Their passion for the ingredients was immediately evident and I was pressed into trying a few tastes of this and that. Soon, I had a cooler packed with everything that I would need.

Before I could begin however, I needed two specialized pieces of equipment that most home cooks don’t have – a vacuum sealer and an immersion circulator.

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My assistant in my day job, Christine Rice, put in a call to Chef Ky-Wai Wong at Tri-C where she is taking classes, to secure loaners for us to use. Armed with these I was ready to begin.

Reading through the recipes, I knew that this was going to be a fun adventure. Chef Jamie has the most friendly, relaxed way of writing a recipe. He encourages really using the senses, seeing, smelling, tasting, trusting my instincts. He also stresses seasonality, for instance the rhubarb I was supposed to use in the jelly was just too far gone in the field. He suggested cranberry as a substitute.

A complex recipe like this needs to be broken into steps. I even wrote out a timeline to help me manage it. I began with the black mustard because the mustard seeds needed to soak for 2 days in wine and vinegar to soften. I also added the required amount of squid ink to give the jet black color Chef Jamie was after and set the container aside.

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The next morning I took on the octopus. I prepared it for its slow cooking in the immersion circulator by vacuum sealing it with some aromatics and letting it cook for eight hours and then chilling it overnight in the refrigerator.

With the octopus prepared, I turned to the milk powder. While Bob’s Red Mill makes a wonderful product, Chef Jamie also wanted to give instructions for making it from scratch. The milk was whipped with a stabilizer and then dehydrated in the oven for about 12 hours. To that powder I added drops of oil flavored with dried Piment d”Espelette peppers. Those needed to be pureed with the oil and then filtered through a coffee filter, a very slow process, so I let it go overnight.

Lastly, blackberries and rose hips were tossed lightly in sugar and salt and set aside overnight with the other components, ready to be utilized in the emulsion.

Feeling very virtuous I headed for bed.

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On the final day, I knew that my Vitamix was going to be very busy and that I needed to create a very specific order, starting with the mildest ingredients and working my way to the spicier. Then I placed all of the finished sauces, the jelly, and the emulsion into squeeze bottles with various size holes in the tops. These would become my best friends when it came time to plate the dish. It gave me a fighting chance to make the dish be as beautiful as the picture Chef Jamie had shown me.

I then used my torch to lightly brown the asparagus and some beautiful turnips I had decided to cut into a small dice for a variety of shape on the plate.

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Christine joined me with her camera to document the process of plating. With my tray full of ingredients and bottles I began arranging pungent celery leaves with dandelion and sweet potato leaf. I tucked 2 pieces of octopus in amongst the leaves and then added the asparagus and turnip as well as little piles of peppery milk powder. Finally, I started making rounds of various sizes of the different sauces.

And then, the best part, we ate it!

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Each bite offered us a different combination of flavors fresh and bright flavors. And while my finished dish didn’t quite look like Chef Jamie’s, it was a delight to my eye. We had gone on a journey together and though we had ended up in slightly different places but it was a wonderful ride.

Melissa McClelland with photography of the recipe testing by Christine Rice. See more of her work here.

Want to try Chef Jamie Simpson’s Octopus Garden recipe for yourself? Just click on his name in Edible Cleveland‘s Food Fight centerfold and his recipe will appear with a beautiful photo by Barney Taxel. Let us know how it goes!