An Octopus for the Rest of Us

When I saw a Toronto streetcar plastered with advertising for the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, featuring an octopus stretched along the outside of the car, I thought “neat, I should take a picture.” When I didn’t take a picture, I was happy to see more ads plastering the inside of the car, and yes, more octopus.

Octopus on the Streetcar

Over the last several years Toronto has been swept up under a tidal wave of octopus dishes, featured on both high and low-end menus. We can’t get enough of it apparently, and so at the time of taking that picture I thought of how the new aquarium could make for a great front to supply Toronto chefs with more octopus. Of course, what I found out when we went to the aquarium is that they actually do stock quite a bit of fish that appears regularly on seafood menus. Not only did they have un-photogenic octopus, they had tanks of trout, haddock, halibut, Alaskan snow crab, and lobster. All that was missing was our host with a towel and fishnet to let us pick out which creature we wanted for our dinner.

Aquarium field trip

Some might think this a twisted way to look at the aquarium but I really think it’s just a way of acknowledging what our food is and where it comes from. When we were at the aquarium with the thousands of children quoting lines from Finding Nemo, I over heard one of them repeat, “fish are friends, not food”. Keep telling yourself that, kiddo.

Chef cooking octopus

I, like many Torontonians, love octopus. I order it almost every time I see it on a menu, thinking it’s not something I would attempt at home for fear of creating a dish that’s tough and inedible. Maybe it’s fitting that a creature that carries so much lore and mystery should be slightly intimidating for home cooks.

Chef cooking octopusOctopus boiling on the stoveOctopus boiling on the stove

My favourite bit of octopus cooking witchcraft comes from something I’ve only ever heard of Spanish cooks performing. While there are plenty of brining, marinating, freezing, rock bashing, and drying techniques all for the sake of tenderizing this creature from the deep, in Spain it seems to be common practice to dip the octopus in a large pot of salted boiling water, three times for three seconds at a time before setting it in the pot to cook. I’ve done it this way too because I really see no harm in playing along with the ceremony but I highly doubt it makes a difference. No more difference anyway than it does to leave an avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole to keep it from browning or adding a match to a pot of simmering water when hard boiling eggs. It’s harmless and makes cooks feel like magicians, so I say do whatever makes you happy.

Octopus drying on rackOctopus drying on rack

This is possibly the easiest recipe for octopus and it makes an impressive starter. It’s a recipe adapted from the Barrafina cookbook, a book I trust for luscious and beautifully authentic Spanish cuisine. It consists of a few simple ingredients, meaning you should take the time to source out the best you can find. The paprika I prefer in this dish is a mild and sweet one, more widely sold as Hungarian sweet paprika. I’m sorry it’s not Spanish. If you’re lucky enough to find Spanish paprika, please go ahead and use it. You could use a smoked variety as well if you prefer a smokey octopus.


It’s easy to adapt this recipe to suit the number of people you have to serve. We used a smallish 3kg octopus, which was enough for four as a light starter. Remember what seems like a beast before cooking will of course become more manageable and shrink down after cooking. To go alongside I tossed purple watercress with some green chilli left to macerate in lime juice with a little salt. The counter-hit of heat from the chilli and sharpness from the lime makes for a refreshing accompaniment.

OctopusOctopus with Capers

Octopus with Capers

Adapted from Barrafina: A Spanish Cookbook

1 medium to large octopus, frozen and thawed (3 – 5kg)
1 large white onion, peeled and sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
150ml olive oil
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
50ml extra virgin olive oil
100ml jar capers packed in salt, rinsed
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
large flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a very large pot of water, salted like the sea, dip the thawed octopus for three seconds and repeat three more times before placing the beast head facing upwards in the pot, adding in the onion and bay leaf. Simmer gently for 1 hour and 15 minutes then turn the octopus so that the head faces down and continue to cook another 30 minutes. Remove the octopus and allow to cool slightly and drain on a tray. Discard the head and beak and with a knife and your hands remove some of the skin and suckers, as much as you desire, dismantling the rest of the octopus into large bite-sized pieces.

In a large heavy bottomed frying pan, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the octopus pieces and fry briefly on each side to brown slightly. Remove from the pan and arrange the pieces on a serving board. Sprinkle the pieces generously with paprika then drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil. Scatter over the capers and parsley and season lightly with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Octopus with Capers

Field Trip to the Aquarium

In retrospect, it was a terrible idea to visit the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada during the holidays, with the crowds of horrible children pushing and shoving, and their parents sticking their iPads in people’s faces to take terrible direct-flash 0.7 megapixel photos.  Nevertheless, when John suggested a field trip to the new Toronto aquarium that opened in October, I jumped at the chance.  Our main purpose was to take pictures of the octopuses, in preparation for a food post about cooking octopus.  (Yes, I’ve been told that’s kind of twisted.)

Sometimes, as a photographer, you approach a situation with a clear shot in mind; something that will truly capture a subject in its all its majesty:


… but instead you end up with this:


Or, this:


Nevermind the aforementioned horrible children and their parents, nor the tiny octopus tank with curved glass that distorts everything, nor the reflections, nor the lack of light… octopuses are nocturnal.  We were at the aquarium for almost 3 hours, and when we looped back through to visit them again at the end of our trip, neither of them had moved.  So, I ended up with the worst octopus photos in the history of octopus photos.

Luckily, John can’t fire me because I own the Crustcrumbs domain (ha HA!), so I’m going to share some other pictures of fish from the aquarium.  However, fish and seafood are so not my thing, so I cannot promise the scientific accuracy of any of my captions.  On the other hand, seafood is John’s thing, so if you stay tuned later this week, he’s going to write more about the edible kind of fish.  He might even use their real names.

Shiny fish.

Aquarium field trip
Drunk fish. Sarah took a pretty good video of these guys, who seem to just float around all day going “whoa…”

Aquarium field trip

Aquarium field trip
Colourfish!  Bonus Crustcrumbs game: guess how many children found “Nemo” while we were looking at this tank?

(Highlight for the answer: ALL OF THEM.  ALL OF THE CHILDREN FOUND NEMO.)

Aquarium field trip

Aquarium field trip
Lazy shark who rests on top of the shark tunnel.

Aquarium field trip
Fat sharks.  (I’m not crazy, right?  These sharks are pretty chubby, yes?)

Aquarium field trip
They still have pretty sharp teeth, though.

Aquarium field trip
Here’s a pile of dead sharks that look like rocks.  (Note: not actually dead.)

Aquarium field trip
Fabulous glitterfish.

Aquarium field trip

Aquarium field trip
This is a stingray photobombing a picture of another stingray.

Aquarium field tripAquarium field trip

So, I may not have taken a really good photo of an octopus, but I did take an average snapshot of a stuffed octopus in the gift shop.

Aquarium field trip

Stay tuned on Thursday for octopus.  Cooked, this time, and much more cooperative as a photography subject.