Tag Archives: cooking

Octopus: Intelligent and Agile, But Also Tasty and Nutritional

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Octopus (pulpo) is a boon for the economy of Mexico. The country is the third largest producer worldwide, with most of the boneless invertebrate mollusk shipped to Spain, Japan and Italy. While there are about 300 species of octopus, most of the Mexican fisheries harvest only two types; Maya (red) and Vulgaris (patón). Almost all (±95%) the nation’s octopi (plural is also octopuses and octopodes) comes from three states – Baja California, Campeche and Yucatán, the latter boasting over 65% of the nation’s production. It’s no wonder that pulpo is such a popular menu item throughout the country.

Inhabiting every ocean, the octopus is really quite a fascinating sea creature, so much so that I occasionally question whether or not I should allow it to continue to be my go-to restaurant dish in high-end eateries. But my taste buds typically trump all.

Octopi are the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Some scientists believe they actually have individual personalities. We know for certain that they are predominantly solitary animals, with uncanny problem solving and survival mechanisms that would make Darwin proud, yet their lifespan is no more than five years, and at times as short as six months.

Octopuses have been known to play with toys, unscrew lids, solve puzzles, interact with human caretakers, display different temperaments including opinions about people, build dens out of rocks for inhabiting, and even place a rock on the entranceway once safely at home to preclude entry by predators (e.g., depending on the particular oceanic region, they include seals, eels, halibut, other fish and even larger octopodes).

While octopi are deaf, their other senses are finely honed. Its head (mantle) contains all vital organs including three hearts, one of which pumps the blue blood through the entire body, and the other two through the gills. The suckers on its arms move independently of one another, enabling the mollusk to grip, taste, smell and manipulate. Each arm is therefore akin to an army of brains. The octopus jet-propels itself seemingly backwards head-first through the water, at a speed of up to 25 MPH. This allows it to easily both avoid predators and catch its meal (crabs, shrimp, young small octopi and other mollusks).

While the octopus is an invertebrate, it possesses a hard beak capable of breaking through the shells of its prey. The octopus’ soft body enables it to contort itself so much so that it can hide in between seemingly inaccessible areas of rock crevices, serving it well as both as hunter, ready to pounce, and hunted, out of sight sound and smell.

Octopuses are venomous, though almost none of the species are so much so that they can be fatal to human beings. However, the venom does serve an important purpose. The venom is contained in its ink; when the octopus is avoiding predators or seeking prey, its release of the dark liquid provides a smoke screen and temporarily freezes the predator/prey.

While everything about the octopus is impressive, its ability to camouflage is perhaps its most incredible feature. On the turn of a dime, the mollusk uses its sharp eyes to match the patterns, colors and textures of its surroundings. Given that it is colorblind, this ability is even more mystifying.

For the seafood aficionado, pulpo contains a large amount of protein, is a rich source of vitamins B3 and B12, and is packed with with potassium, iodine, selenium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus.

We tend to relish the opportunity to steam lobster and spice up our lives frying up a plethora of shrimp recipes, but typically omit pulpo from our repertoires that impress house guests. Despite the attributes of octopi noted above, perhaps it’s time to try your hand at a recipe. While pulpo is usually rather expensive in restaurants, it’s much less so if prepared on a grill at home.

RECIPE FOR GRILLED OCTOPUS

For those residing close to the coast, of course it’s advisable to buy your octopus fresh from the fisherman. Do try to get him to clean it because it’s messy and time consuming doing it yourself. Mexican seafood retailers tend to sell them cleaned, frozen and ready to cook. This recipe assumes you are using a cleaned, frozen octopus.

1. Defrost, slowly in the fridge if possible.
2. In a large pot of boiling water, while holding onto the head dunk the body (arms) into the water three times before then fully submerging it and leaving to boil about 40 minutes (theoretically, that makes the tentacles curl up restaurant-style). You can add herbs, spices and/or salt to the water, but it’s not necessary because (a) it’s salty by nature, and (b) seasoning will subsequently be added.
3. Allow to cool for up to a couple of hours.
4. Cut off the arms where they meet the body.
5. Separately cut off the upper portion to close to where it meets the head, and cut into pieces an inch or two in size.
6. Marinate for an hour or so in olive oil, fresh minced garlic, salt, pepper and fresh chopped parsley.
7. Clean and oil the grill (use olive oil), and pre-heat to a high temperature.
8. Turn down the grill to 50% heat and immediately place each piece on it, in the case of the arms for 3 – 4 minutes each side, longer for the upper body portions.
9. Place the nicely grilled pieces on serving dishes, sprinkled with salt, pepper and chopped parsley, then lightly drizzled with olive oil.

Try it this way the first time, then for subsequent preparation experiment with different herbs and spices to taste.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca
(www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

A Brief History of Cooking

By Randy Jackson

Today, perhaps more than any other time in human history, food has been elevated on a cultural pedestal of reverence. The depth of knowledge and appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines among so many people seems to be a cultural characteristic of our times. Celebrity chefs, food shows and food networks, never mind food pictures posted on Instagram, are only a few of the many indicators of this interest. The term “foodie” was first coined in the 1980s and is now in common use. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a foodie as “a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby.” Travel, immigration, and the abundance of food and ingredients from all over the world have all had a hand in this current cultural obsession with food and cooking. However, today’s modern hipsters of cuisine are only the most recent green sprig of growth in the long history of cooking.

Our evolutionary record shows the harnessing of fire coincided with the growth of the human brain relative to body size. This development took place roughly 1.9 million years ago. Harnessing fire had multiple benefits to humans, but chief among them was that it allowed the cooking of food. Cooking food increases the caloric value and reduces the energy required to digest it. Cooking food also enabled early humans to eat certain tubers and roots that were otherwise inedible.

I think it safe to assume that grilling was the first cooking method. Studies of primitive tribes, even today, show how an animal is cooked (it’s estimated that there are more than a hundred “uncontacted peoples” worldwide, half of them in the Amazonian jungle). The entire carcass is thrown onto the open fire. The fire, along with some scraping, removes the fur. Then as bits of the animal are deemed cooked, they are cut or torn from the carcass and consumed. It’s easy to see the direct lineage of this form of cooking to the tossing of a piece of meat onto the barbeque today.

The earliest dishes beyond grilling were probably soups and stews. There is some evidence from Japan dating back 10,000 years of a type of stew made by putting flesh and water into an animal’s paunch and boiling it over a fire. No doubt soups and stews were being made much earlier than this. Once mankind had figured out how to cook in a container of some sort, it only made sense they began boiling up bits of almost anything they could find.

There is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca – still practiced – of making “stone soup.” National Geographic has a documentary showing this
(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2010/10/04/mexicos_stone_soup/). The cooking method consists of putting water, vegetables, and fish into a smooth rounded depression in the rocky ground. Then a stone is heated on a fire before dropping it into this natural cauldron, and the soup is cooked. It’s easy to imagine how different flavors were discovered by experimentation or by chance when something new was added to the soup or stew.

Let’s not forget about bread. Archaeologists in Jordan have found the remains of flatbread made with wild barley and plant roots – about 14,000 years old, it predates agricultural practices by thousands of years. Societies all over the world have independently found ways to make bread. Mash up grains, add water to make a paste, fry on a hot rock – and presto! For example, the original inhabitants of what is now California developed a complex procedure to make flour for flatbread out of acorns. Source material for bread was everywhere once man learned to harness fire.

Harnessing fire and cooking required greater social organization and division of duties – there had to be fire tenders, wood gatherers, hunters, etc. A central fire also brought people together for longer periods, especially at night, which increased social complexity and likely helped in the evolution of language.

The Cheeses of Mexico

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The United States in the mid-20th century was not a place where children developed a palate for cheese. Our families’ forays into cheese-tasting extended not much further than Philadelphia cream cheese, which was liberally smeared on bagels, and some soft substance called American cheese that was grilled between two slices of white bread. When well-travelled cousins introduced us to exotic cheeses imported from France, or even just purchased in Wisconsin, we quickly created the name “stinky cheese” for them.

Although in the following decades small US dairies began experimenting with and producing some wonderful cheeses, by savoring them, or visiting France and Italy, we still weren’t fully prepared for the varieties and differences of the cheeses we learned to love while living in Mexico. Even the mass-produced cheeses that one finds in the supermercados are wonderful for snacking or cooking. Our weekly supermarket shopping in Mexico is never complete until we toss into our basket a block of manchego, a ball of Oaxaca cheese, and a round package of panela. And, in the enormous Chedraui near our favorite condo in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, the huge cheese department tempts us with varieties from virtually every state in Mexico and beyond.

But in our opinion the very best cheeses are found in small specialty stores or from sellers in outdoor markets. One such store was in La Crucecita in Huatulco, Oaxaca, and offered a wide selection of cheeses: La Cremería Costa del Pacifico. Unfortunately, the shop recently closed due, in part, to the economic effects of the pandemic. Last March, the owner, Rebeca Barboza, was gracious enough to discuss their cheeses with us.

Most of the cheeses available at such specialty cheese stores are made from cow’s milk, but each type has a distinctive taste and properties. Fresh, crumbly Ranchero, made in the State of Mexico, is a great addition to salads. Panela, also fresh from the State of Mexico, is the delight of nutritionists since it contains no fat or salt. We sometimes grill panela, and since it has no fat, it softens into a spreadable consistency but doesn’t melt.

Quesillo, the pride of Oaxaca, is also a fresh cheese made without salt. But because of its fat content quesillo can melt. If we don’t immediately snarf it down, we use it in omelets or other dishes calling for a taste of melted cheese. An alternative to quesillo for cooking is Mexican mozzarella made using the same process as mozzarella in Italy – but the Italian process uses buffalo milk while mozzarella in Mexico is made from cow’s milk. While mozzarella is traditional on pizza, quesillo is everyone’s favorite on the Oaxacan alternative to pizza, the delicious tlayuda.

The manchego that was available in La Cremería Costa del Pacifico came from Guadalajara after being aged two or three months. Originally made in Spain from sheep milk, it is perhaps the most versatile of cheeses. Whether from specialty stores or supermarkets, we grate manchego for a variety of dishes, melt it for others including queso fundido which sometimes is served with tortillas or vegetables for dipping, or sometimes we simply cut up the manchego into cubes for a snack. The best cheddar (yes Mexican not Wisconsin cheddar) is aged 12 months and comes from the mountains of Jalisco where, according to Senora Barboza, “milk is cheaper than water.”

Both specialty stores and supermarkets also carry goat cheeses. One of the best is the crumbly feta that is made in Guanajuato. And our favorite queso de cabra is spreadable and is sold in many stores in small logs, often covered with black ash which gives the cheese a delicious smoky flavor.

For the very freshest of cheeses we head to the organic market which is held outdoors on selected Saturdays in Santa Cruz Huatulco. According to the cheese seller, Isabel Ramos, all their cheeses are made from cow’s milk the day before the market on a ranch located twenty minutes north of Puerto Escondido. The organic designation requires that no chemicals be used in the cheese preparation, just milk from free-range cows.

We can heartfully recommend all their cheeses. The queso de prensa is firm enough to slice. Chiles and epazote are integral to the queso botanero and different batches range from mildly tasty to moderately picante. The queso ranchero and quesillo are on a par with the same types of cheeses found in specialty cheese shops – but we like buying local and knowing that the cows producing the milk were free to wander around pastures. The requesón is sold under the name of ricotta since foreign frequenters of the organic market are more familiar with that term. But whether one calls the cheese ricotta or requesón, it is great heaped on toasted bagels with tomato slices – much better than cream cheese.

While at the organic market, it is worthwhile searching for the vendor who sells Gouda cheese from Quesería La Pradera in Tilzapotla, Morelos. The cheese maker is originally from Holland. More information about the production of this Gouda can be found at
https://www.facebook.com/queseria.la.pradera/.

During these weeks of sheltering in place to avoid COVID19, we miss our friends and our wonderful view of the ocean in Huatulco. We also miss the cheeses. We will miss La Cremería and hope that the owners and staff of the other little shops and market tables that sell our favorites are safely weathering the earthquakes and the virus. Provecho!