Next time you open a bottle of wine, you might want to hold onto that cork. According to Brian Laird, chef/co-owner of Sarto’s, the new restaurant in Jefferson Park that I review this week, the little plug that most of us unceremoniously throw out holds the key to tender octopus.
“When I stayed in Italy, that’s the way I had it,” says Laird, whose grilled octopus with bone marrow, fingerlings and spinach wowed me.“I’m a true believer that it changes the PH balance of the water.”
And he’s not the only one. At Il Posto, chef de cuisine Mario Pacheco also tosses in a cork when he’s preparing cephalopods. “We did an experiment with and without it, and found with the smaller [octopuses] it helped,” he says. Exactly why, however, Pacheco can’t say for sure. Cork “helps it, but I don’t know what part of it.” In the past, he’s brined octopus sous-vide for eight hours before braising it for another seven with tomatoes, but he has no complaints about the results he’s been getting more recently with cork and a pressure cooker. (Octopus isn’t on the current menu at Il Posto, but a few weeks ago it ran as a terrine similar to head cheese.)
Other chefs, however, aren’t so sure about popping the cork. “Honestly, I think the cork is a myth,” says John Parks, executive chef-instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts. While he agrees that something must be done – “fibers on octopus are dense,” he says “and the animals are harvested later in life than other sea creatures, so tenderizing is essential” – he prefers to let the freezer do the work.
“Putting it in the freezer causes ice crystals to break the fibers when you defrost, a very efficient way of tenderizing,” he explains. Or you can buy pre-tenderized octopus, he adds, and roast it low and slow, covered with foil, for about five hours.