The first time I ate pulpo a la gallega was at a very disreputable-looking food stand not far from the Estadio Balaídos in Vigo, Spain, before watching a soccer match between Celta de Vigo and Racing Santander (it finished 2-2). It was served on a slightly wilted plastic plate with a toothpick that looked suspiciously blunt at one end, as if it had already been used. I was absolutely sure I was going to have raging diarrhea because of this lack of hygiene, but ate the whole plate anyway. Sure enough, two hours after the end of the match, I rushed back to the hotel holding on to my bowels for dear life.
The second time, things improved considerably, reclining, as we were, in some old oak chairs in a tapas bar in Madrid earlier this year after a morning in El Museo del Prado. The only unpleasant feeling came from our sadness when the generous racione was finished. While pondering these feelings, Amy and I came to the conclusion that it’s one of the world’s greatest snack foods. Chewy, salty, sweet and filling, healthy and satisfying, pulpo a la gallega is simply chopped boiled octopus in the Galician style – dressed with sea salt, olive oil and sweet pimenton – and in Galician pulperias is commonly served on a wooden board with toothpicks. Like so many tapas, and Spanish dishes generally, it is achingly simple, and yet unbelievably good. Add anything to it and it becomes something else, take something away and it’s missing a key element.
That said, this, the signature dish of the region, is sometimes made with potatoes and when it is, is normally cooked on a hot plate and referred to as pulpo a la plancha. Another variation, pulpo a la feria, or pulpo a la feira in Gallego (the local dialect that sits somewhere between Spanish and Portuguese) is traditionally cooked in a copper kettle which gives the purple (when cooked) octopus a more orangey color and interesting minerally-taste. When such traditional vessels are unavailable (like virtually everywhere), a copper coin is often tossed in to the boiling water.
In an effort to do it all in one dish, as we only had one octopus – we boiled the ‘pus with a copper coin and boiled some potatoes separately, then combined them on the plate with the salt, pimenton and olive oil. It was delicious. The texture of octopus might be off-putting for some, as it’s kind of chewy on the outside and “crunchy” on the inside, but I love it, and when cut into inch-long chunks it makes a fantastic finger-food, if your guests are adventurous enough to try it. Not only that, but it’s easy to prepare and octopus is pretty reasonably priced.
Pulpo a la Gallega
1 pre-frozen medium octopus – around 1lb, pre-cooked (if not pre-frozen, freeze it for 24 hours)
2 quarts/ (roughly) 2 liters water, boiling
1 bay leaf, 1/2 onion, 1/4 cup vinegar (optional)
2 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and balled (using a melon-baller)
2-3oz extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp pimenton dulce/sweet paprika
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
Gently boil octopus in 2 quarts/2 liters salted water, remembering to add a copper penny, for 1 hr. (Some recipes call for bay leaf, onion, and vinegar, some not, in the water. Our experience tells us adding a 1/4 cup of white vinegar helps to tenderize the ‘pus a little)
Allow to cool before slicing into 1inch/2cm chunks.
Dress with olive oil, and sprinkle generously with pimenton and salt.
Serve with lots of crusty bread and a bottle of something cool and white, perhaps a Galician Albarino, Ribeiro, or a Portugese vinho verde.
Note: our friend CanaryGirl has also made Pulpo a la Gallega and her technique for boiling the octopus is rather different from ours. Check her out and feel free to tell us which you think worked best.
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