North Fork Chef: A Grecian formula for cooking seafood

Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,
Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?
With thy bosom bespangled and banded
With the hues of the seas and the skies;
Is thy home European or Asian,
O mystical monster marine?
Part molluscous and partly crustacean,
Betwixt and between.
Excerpt from ‘Octopus’
by Arthur Clement Hilton

The octopus is one of the most intelligent creatures in the sea. It has the unique ability to hide by changing its colors to match its habitat, wherever it is. It can also move very fast and squeeze its body into small spaces. And when attacked, it can release a cloud of black ink to obscure the attacker’s view. The common octopus is found in temperate waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Mediterranean Sea. It’s also commonly found in Greek cuisine, along with many fish that are often grilled and served whole. Olive oil, lemon, oregano and olives are some of the ingredients used in Greek cooking. Here are some examples of this ancient seaside cuisine:

Grilled Marinated Octopus
Purchase two 1 1/2-pound octopuses that have been cleaned and frozen. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and rinse. Cut off the head, leaving the tentacles connected. Place the tentacles and head in a large soup pot with 4 quarts of water. Add a sliced lemon, 2 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons coarse salt and 12 peppercorns. Bring to a boil and simmer very slowly for about 45 minutes. Check for tenderness by cutting off a small piece of tentacle and eating it. Drain the cooked octopus and place in a shallow pan.

Combine 1 cup extra virgin olive oil with 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, the juice and zest of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Pour this mixture over the octopus, cover with plastic film and place in the refrigerator overnight.

At service time, remove the octopus from the marinade and pat it dry with paper towels. Cook on a hot grill about 10 minutes per side and cut the tentacles into half-inch pieces. Slice the head and serve over greens or a chickpea stew (below).

Serves 4.

Grilled North Fork Porgy
Porgy, also known as sea bream, is found in many forms around the world, including the North Fork. It is a popular sport fish and is best when grilled whole because of its bone structure. It has a lean, soft texture with a sweet flavor.

Have 4 very fresh porgies gutted and scaled. Place them in a shallow pan and prepare a marinade as follows: Thinly slice 2 red onions, mince 3 tablespoons garlic and slice 2 lemons. Whisk together 1 cup olive oil, the juice and zest of 2 lemons, 2 tablespoons chopped oregano, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Add the vegetables and pour the mixture over the fish, making sure some gets in the cavities of the fish. Let marinate for 1 to 2 hours before cooking.

At service time, cut 4 large pieces of foil and lay them on the counter. Spray the foil with no-stick and place a fish on each piece. Add marinade and vegetables . Fold up each foil package, leaving some space for air. Put these packages on the grill, but not directly over the coals. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Check for doneness by cutting into one of the fish. Serve whole with lemons and parsley.

Serves 4.

Vegetables à la Greque
In a large, deep soup pot put 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup white wine, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 4 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 4 sprigs of thyme, 12 peppercorns and 1 tablespoon coarse salt. Bring this mixture to a simmer and turn off the heat.

Prepare the following vegetables: Peel and cut 4 carrots into 2-inch sticks; peel and cut 2 red onions into wedges; trim the stems off 2 dozen white mushrooms; cut 1 bulb of fennel into slices; trim the ends off 1/2 pound of green beans; and cut 1 red bell pepper into large slices. Place these vegetables into the broth, cover and cook until just tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped parsley and 1 thinly sliced lemon. Transfer the mixture to a shallow pan and refrigerate overnight. Serve on a platter with parsley and lemon.

Serves 4.

Chickpea Stew
Soak 1 pound of dried chickpeas in 2 quarts cold water overnight. Drain the chickpeas and put them in a saucepan. Cover with water and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. In another saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add 1 coarsely chopped red bell pepper; 1 bunch of scallions, sliced; 1 tablespoon minced garlic; and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Season with 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1 teaspoon coarse salt.

When vegetables are soft, add 4 diced plum tomatoes and 2 tablespoons tomato paste. Bring to a simmer and add the cooked chickpeas along with the juice and zest of 1 lemon and 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley. Check for seasoning and serve with grilled fish.

Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].