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Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries featuring Sicilian detective inspector Salvo Montalbano – as much for his devotion to food as for his skill in solving crimes. In every volume our hero lustily consumes traditional Sicilian dishes made for him by his faithful housekeeper Adelina, his favorite restaurateur Enzo, and anyone else he can find to feed him. Except his girlfriend Livia, who is a terrible cook.

The writeups of those dishes are so mouth-watering that I can’t resist making them myself. I’ve already written about them here six times, mostly based on recipes in a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. But that book doesn’t have everything mentioned in the novels, so I’ve had to do a little detective work of my own and go farther afield to find recipes.

The newest Montalbano adventure is called According to Protocol, and it exists not in a printed book but only in the Italian television series available here on DVD. (Naturally I have the whole series, just as I have copies of all the novels.) In this episode, Montalbano is told about Da Filippo, a country restaurant said to make a particularly good version of the octopus dish Polpo alla Luciana. He drives off to find it one afternoon.
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After verifying that the eponymous Filippo makes his octopus dish with Gaeta olives and Pantelleria capers, Montalbano sits down at a table. Just then, two black-hooded gunmen burst in, one of them clearly about to kill our hero. The other one inexplicably knocks out the shooter, fires his gun twice into the walls, and drags his partner out. Filippo responds by going into hysterics, but Montalbano’s principal concern is for his lunch.
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Alas, the video doesn’t show the dish actually being served. I determined to make it anyway, and began looking at recipes. There were none for polpo alla Luciana in my Sicilian cookbooks but several in my Neapolitan ones. I asked a New York-based Sicilian restaurateur about the dish, and he reminded me that in much of the 19th century, Naples was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with much comestible, as well as cultural, interchange. He said they of course made that dish in Sicily.

So I proceeded. In six cookbooks I found essentially two versions of the dish: one with the octopus simply boiled, cooled, and dressed like a seafood salad, the other braised in oil, tomato, and other seasonings and served hot. None of the variations included the quintessentially Sicilian olive and caper combination so important to Montalbano, but it would be easy enough to add them. I decided to mostly follow the recipe in Anna Gosetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and take a few hints from Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità, both highly respected Italian culinary classics.


Both recipes were for the braised version of the dish. In my detective persona I deduced that it was more likely to be the one Montalbano had, because if Filippo’s was the seafood-salad type the octopus wasn’t likely to be burning.

That decided, off I went to the fish market for octopus.
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These two, each weighing three quarters of a pound, had already been tenderized by the store. That was a huge convenience, saving me from having to smack them hard for several minutes with a meat pounder, or fling them repeatedly into the (clean) kitchen sink, to soften the rubbery flesh.

Preparing the other components of the dish was quite easy.
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I put the octopi into a heavy pot into which they’d fit snugly. I salted, peppered, and topped them with ½ cup of olive oil, 3 chopped plum tomatoes, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, a whole garlic clove, a small dried hot red pepper, and – for Montalbano’s sake –16 Gaeta olives and 2 tablespoons of drained tiny capers.
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To prevent any of the cooking juices from escaping, I had to lay a piece of parchment over the pot and tie it down with string, before putting on the pot’s own lid.
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The pot then went onto my stove’s lowest burner at its lowest setting and stayed there undisturbed – cooking “insensibilmente” – for two hours.

Ada Boni sternly forbids taking the lid off the pot until the very moment of serving. When you finally do, she says, you’ll see “a kind of big, reddish chrysanthemum, utterly tender, floating in an exquisite broth that the munificent beast has generously provided.” (My translation.)
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When I lifted off the parchment, a lush, savory aroma wafted up. My submarine “chrysanthemums” had shrunk considerably in the course of creating their broth. They were indeed beautifully tender, with a soft, yielding texture a little like that of scallops. They had the characteristic octopus sweetness – rich but delicate, sort of halfway between crabmeat and sole or flounder.
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The broth wasn’t at all a tomato sauce: the chopped tomato remained as toothsome little nuggets, along with the olives and capers. The olive oil had blended with all the other flavors to create an unmistakably Mediterranean essence. This was a very, very good dish, a worthy companion to a fine white wine. No wonder Montalbano loved it!

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Making a meal of dishes featured in Andrea Camilleri’s novels about the Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano seems to have become an annual event for me.

When, in the middle of an investigation, our hero is struck by “his customary wolflike hunger,” the meals he eats are described with such gusto that I’d give montalbano cookbookanything to be able to join him at the table. That not being possible, my next choice is to page through Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri and plan a dinner around some of that cookbook’s recipes. I’ve written about my results here four times in the past four years; so to keep up the tradition, here’s this year’s installment – one dish from each of three of the novels, which I made for a small dinner party with friends who are also Montalbano fans.

Sfincione

With aperitifs in the living room, I made a sfincione, which is a kind of focaccia or thick-crust Sicilian pizza, very popular even here in the US, that’s mentioned in Excursion to Tindari. Montalbano himself doesn’t eat this. He hears about it from a garrulous old citizen he’s questioning, who tries to describe the entire meal his nephew, who lives in Tindari, served him on the day of the titular excursion – starting with a sfincione.

Sfincione

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The book’s recipe calls for already-risen bread dough (purchased, presumably), into which you are to knead grated pecorino, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I made my own dough, using my favorite focaccia recipe. I pressed it into a pan, spread over it a quickly made tomato-onion sauce, dotted it with bits of anchovies, strewed on shavings of caciocavallo cheese, and baked it in a hot oven until just barely done.

I did all this early in the day, so in the evening all I had to do was add a topping of fine breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes. Cut into small squares, the sfincione was a very tasty snack. We made short work of it.

Sfincione finishing

 

Polpettine di polipetti

Of the day’s three dishes, this was the most unusual one, which I was most eager to make: octopus croquettes. One of Montalbano’s two favorite restaurants is the eponymous trattoria of his friend Calogero. In The Smell of the Night he arrives there at lunchtime with that wolflike hunger of his and eats spaghetti in squid ink followed by a dozen fried octopus meatballs. They sounded fascinating, but since I had never even heard of making croquettes from octopus, much less tasted any, I didn’t want to chance them as the main course of my dinner party, so I made them as a hot antipasto.

It was quite a production. Here are the main stages:

Polpettini

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I had already-cooked octopus tentacles in the freezer, left over from a previous cooking event. We put them through the meat grinder (those are Tom’s hands in the picture) and I mixed in grated pecorino cheese, bread soaked in white wine and squeezed almost dry, garlic, parsley, and an egg. I shaped the mixture into balls, put them in refrigerator for a few hours to firm up, dipped them in egg and then breadcrumbs, and fried them. All this this was early in the afternoon. At dinner time I reheated the croquettes in the oven.

Alongside, we served cut-up lemons and a spicy tomato sauce (Tom’s idea and invention). With great curiosity, everyone tasted them. Oh, dear! While they were perfectly acceptable croquettes, they had no flavor of octopus. Squeezes of lemon brought out a hint of it, but so mildly that the basic ingredient could have been any white meat – chicken, pork, veal, even alligator or rattlesnake. I suspect it was the pecorino that masked the flavor of the octopus, but you couldn’t even taste cheese as such. We all ate a few, but the dish was a letdown – edible, certainly, but far from exciting. I can’t believe Calogero wouldn’t have made it better.

Agnello alla cacciatora

Every reader of the novels knows that Montalbano would much rather dine on fish than meat. He doesn’t get that choice on an occasion in The Voice of the Violin: Calogero’s place is closed that day and he tries La Cacciatora, an osteria 20 kilometers inland from the coast. When the proprietor asks him what he’ll have, Montalbano says “Bring me whatever you like.”

He receives a fiery hot pasta to start, followed by the house’s lamb hunter’s style. He likes it, particularly enjoying the “pleasant fragrance of onion and oregano.” That made me a bit suspicious of the cookbook’s recipe, which contains black olives, capers, celery, red wine, tomato paste, only a little onion, and no oregano. (I added some at the end.)

lamb cacciatora

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It was a pleasant enough lamb braise. But it would have seemed much more Sicilian to us – and probably more interesting – if it had been made with swordfish rather than lamb. I’ll bet Montalbano would have liked it that way too.

The lamb I cooked a whole day in advance, since stews and braises generally taste better if given some time for their flavors to develop and blend. Which they did, but not in a way as to really excite our palates. On the positive side, none of these three dishes seemed to have been at all harmed for having been done in advance and reheated. A very useful attribute for a busy dinner-party cook.

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Back in the ‘70s, Tom and I often dined at a small Greenwich Village restaurant called El Rincón de España. We particularly loved the owner-chef’s specialty of octopus in a tangy red sauce, Pulpo a la Carlos. We didn’t know much about Spanish food then, and we never figured out what gave the dish its unusual flavor. (Innocents as we were, it didn’t occur to us to ask.) As time moved on, we grew away from El Rincón (it closed long ago), and it was many years before I became seriously interested in Spanish cooking.

Fast forward to the present. The food on our recent trip to Spain had given us a Pimentonstaste for pimentón – smoked paprika – tins of which we’d brought back and begun experimenting with. One evening Tom concocted a marinade for some shrimp to be broiled, using olive oil, garlic, oregano, and hot pimentón. The first taste of the shrimp was a Proustian moment for us both: This had to be the way Carlos did his pulpo!

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Of course, I had to try it. I was able to buy cooked octopus in a local store, which was a great time- and labor-saver:

cooked octopus

(That’s 2⅓ pounds of octopus – much more than I needed for the two of us, but there’s another octopus recipe, not Spanish, that I intend to try, which I’ll report on here in due time.)

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Casas MammaI also checked my Spanish cookbooks and found a recipe for Pulpo Encebollado (Octopus with Paprika in Simmered Onions) in Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mamá that used similar ingredients. It didn’t include a marinade, but the rest of the technique looked good, so I basically adopted it. Another good sign: The headnote mentioned that this was a recipe from Galicia, where octopus is enormously popular. El Rincón’s Carlos was also Galician.

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So: Tom cut up a pound of the octopus tentacles into one-inch pieces and I froze the rest. I simmered 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons of hot pimentón, and ½ teaspoon of salt in ⅓ cup of olive oil. When it was cool I poured it over the octopus pieces and let them marinate for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

marinating octopus

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In the evening I poured off that seasoned oil and in it softened ¾ cup of minced onions, slowly and covered, so they almost dissolved. Then I added the octopus, stirred in just a little water to keep it from frying, and heated it all through.

final cooking

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It was simply gorgeous. Was it indeed the Pulpo a la Carlos we’d eaten so many years ago? We’re not certain, but it came as close as reminiscence allows. Maybe Carlos added a little tomato puree, to make the whole dish a bit saucier?  I can try that next time – and there will be a next time. Octopus is delicious: Low in fat, high in protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, it has to be the world’s meatiest mollusk. Its succulent flesh seemed to revel in the contrast with the lively pimentón sauce. The plain rice I served alongside absorbed that sauce with enthusiasm, too. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to rediscover – after 40 years! – such a great culinary treat.

octopus plated

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