Wine-Braised Baby Octopus with Saffron Polenta Cakes

by Megg

      Sometimes recipes start in the simplest of places.  In this case, it was a craving for polenta. Then, as many people do, I transformed that craving into a brainstorming session, thinking of something I could make with what I had on hand. From there the story gets weirder, yet more indicative of who I am, as “what I had on hand” happened to be baby octopus and oil-cured olives (the stuff I actually had to go out and buy were “crazy” ingredients like celery and canned tomatoes).  But really, for a girl who spends her free time making bento lunches and learning to play the theremin, this really shouldn’t be that surprising.
      This also isn’t helping my efforts to convince my mom that I do in fact manage to make most of my meals without relying on a tentacle-clad protein. I was going to defend myself by pointing out that this is my first recipe featuring octopus or squid… and it totally IS (besides my posts on Takoyaki, Artichoke-Stuffed Squid and Seafood Chow Mein).  Seriously, Mom, I have no idea what you’re talking about. . .
      Ahem..well, anyway, the good news is you don’t have to be a weirdo like me to make this recipe.  In fact, it’s not even difficult!  Octopus is known as a tricky protein, needing to be cooked either very briefly or nice and slowly.  Too many people I’ve met seem to think octopus is supposed to be rubbery and tough, but it’s not.  When cooked correctly, the texture is tender, meaty and flavorful.  Of all the times I’ve cooked octopus to date, the method used here worked out the best for me.  The combination of quick frying the octopus first, then braising for 30+ minutes gave the octopus that perfectly tender texture. We enjoyed it as a  full meal, but you could also serve it as a tapas dish or a stunning appetizer.
Wine-Braised Baby Octopus with Saffron Polenta Cakes
—-inspired by No Recipes and Food & Wine—-
Serves 6
For octopus:
  • 2 pounds baby octopus, cleaned and dried*
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped, with liquid reserved
  • 2 cups dry red wine (such as a Syrah)
  • 2/3 cup roasted piquillo peppers, chopped*
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 cup oil-cured olives, pitted*
  • 1/2 cup flat parsley, chopped
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
For polenta cakes:
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2  18-oz tubes of prepared polenta
1. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron threads into a powder.  In a small bowl, mix the saffron into 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.  Set aside and allow to steep for at least half an hour.
2.  Heat a large, deep frying pan (preferably cast-iron) over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  Add the octopus in one layer (working in two batches, if necessary) and allow to fry, undisturbed, until nicely browned on the bottom.  Flip the octopus and fry the other side the same way, until browned.  Move the octopus to a plate. With the pan still at medium high heat, add the last tablespoon of oil.


3. Add the celery, carrot, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes and bay leaf to the pan and sauté, stirring often.  Continue until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned, about 6 minutes.
4. Add the octopus back to the pan along with the tomatoes (with liquid), piquillo peppers, and paprika.  Turn up the heat to high, stirring frequently, until the liquid boils and starts to reduce a bit.  Reduce the heat to low and slowly add the wine to the pan.  Stir well, then bring back up to a boil.
5.  Turn the heat down to a simmer and partially cover the pan with a lid. Allow everything to simmer, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour or until sauce has thickened and the octopus is nice and tender. Add the olives to the pan and continue simmering for about 5 more minutes.  Discard the bay leaf, then stir in the chopped parsley.  Taste the sauce, then season with salt and pepper.
6.  To make the polenta cakes, remove the polenta from the tube while maintaining its shape.  Slice into rounds, each about 3/4 of an inch thick, and sprinkle the rounds with a bit of salt.  Heat a few tablespoons of the saffron oil in a pan over medium high heat.  Add a batch of polenta cakes in one layer and fry until browned on one side.  Flip to brown the other side.  Continue with the rest of the polenta rounds, adding more saffron oil to the pan as needed.
7.  To serve, arrange a few polenta cakes on a plate or in a shallow bowl.  Ladle the octopus with sauce over the polenta cakes, and garnish with a sprig of parsley.
*Recipe notes:
  • Baby octopus is often found in the frozen section of Asian, Italian, or finer grocery stores.  If your baby octopus is small, you can leave it whole, but if it’s larger, you can halve or quarter it.  The batch I had varied in size, so I cut the larger ones down so all the pieces were around the same size.
  • If needed, you can substitute regular roasted red peppers for the piquillos, and kalamata olives for the oil-cured ones.

And there you have it: a warming Spanish-inspired dish that’s full of harmonious flavors and vibrant colors! Again, we enjoyed this as a one-dish meal, but I served the leftovers as an appetizer, as I shown in the photos.
Either way, it works wonderfully, perhaps as cozy meal for two, or an impressive dinner party dish!  Enjoy!


  • Bentobird

    Impressive indeed! Wow Megg, your culinary adventures leave me breathless, this is yet another high-water mark set for boldness, creativity and skill.

    Awesome, this conjunction of mellow golden polenta and excitingly flavored octopus. I really appreciate the cooking instructions, I've been hestitant to cook octo in the past…now I'll give it a try with your words of kitchen wisdom to go by :)!

  • Megg

    And once again, Jenn, you make me blush with your kind comments. Thanks so much!
    As I said I've made octopus a few times.. I've grilled it, used it in takoyaki, and quick-fried it, but this is my first time doing the fry-then-braise method. As I said, it was my best attempt yet! I think I'll try grilling it again, but only after brining the octo overnight. Definitely let me know if you cook some up and how it goes! Have a great weekend! ^_^

  • tofugirl

    I love that top photo! Great colors. I haven't cooked octopus myself before, but I may have to try! If I ever get out from under cookie mass production, that is :)

  • Megg

    Thanks Carol! Haha.. I should probably start baking more.. most people I know don't want octopus as a holiday gift. ^_^

  • tofugirl

    well, now I'm envisioning octopus shaped cookies………

    HMMM!!! Hehehe.

  • Megg

    Whoa! That sounds awesome.. do it!

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