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Curly octopus legs on macaroniSpring has officially come to Greece. For me, two specific arrivals announce this fact each year. One is that of Lent, and the other is that of my allergies. Some years (for unknown reasons) I am spared the horrors of a tap-like runny nose and constant sneezing; in which case my actual allergy is replaced by the worry of the possibility of my allergy creeping up on me. A worry triggered (daily) by the sight of caterpillars or the sheets of yellow dusty pollen that settle on cars, pavements, my balcony, even my plants. And yet, Spring is still my favourite season.

This year it seems spring fashion might indeed include a big red nose and puffy eyes – at least for me, as I’ve spent the past three days wearing what I like to call “the walrus look”. This involves two scrunched up tissues inserted in the nostrils; it’s a stay at home look, as you can imagine, but then going out and breathing in pollen-infested air is not something you feel like doing when your nose resembles a leaky tap. Have you heard enough? Thought you might have…

So, going back to the first Spring Announcement: the beginning of Lent. Lent (Sarakosti in Greek) started a couple of weeks ago, as Greek Orthodox Easter is on the 5th of May this year. I’m not very religious, but in the past few years – mainly for culinary reasons – Lent has become quite an exciting time. When fasting, Greek people become very adventurous in the kitchen, setting aside their classic meat loving recipes and producing interesting, healthy and very unusual vegan dishes. Proper fasting in Greece means you don’t eat anything coming from an animal e.g. meat, eggs, dairy etc.  By “animal” in this case, they mean any being that has blood. So fish is out, but seafood is in. Although most will only give up meat for these 40 days, some traditional folk go the whole nine yards. The hardcore ones cut out olive oil (no mean feat for a Greek) and alcohol as well; these are only allowed on a few specific days. [Note: I just went on to a Church website to check my facts, and saw that other things you need to give up during fasting are “marital duties” (no, that’s not the washing up) and audiovisual means (yes, that’s the tv!). Then you can move to a Monastery...]

The dish I’m sharing today is Octopus Macaroni. This is mostly eaten on “Clean Monday”, which is the equivalent of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On Clean Monday, the traditional foods eaten are Lagana (a big flat loaf of bread with lots of sesame seeds on it – not to be confused with Lasagna!), Macedonian halva (this refers to the Northern part of Greece – the real Macedonia – where halva is made from tahini and is deeelish), seafood, stuffed vine leaves, olives, taramosalata and much much more.

Octopus Macaroni is cooked in tomato sauce and it’s one of my Mum’s best Greek dishes. Although English, my Mum has mastered quite a few traditional recipes! This is one of them. I have adapted it for the slow cooker, as octopus needs to be cooked one of two ways, either quickly on very high heat or slowly on low heat. Perfect for the Crock Pot!

First of all, I suggest you get a frozen octopus, as freezing is one of the best ways to tenderize it. That way you’ve no need to worry about beating it on a rock and hanging it out in the Greek sun while you have a quick ouzo (’cause that would be a right pain..). Usually, frozen octopus has also been cleaned of its ink, another good thing. If you have a fresh one, watch this great video to see how you can prep it. I thought my 600g octopus was tiny, but after seeing those on the video, mine seemed like a giant, man-eating monster! So, here goes…

Slow Cooker Octopus Macaroni in Tomato Sauce

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 Octopus (600g), cleaned and cut into bite size pieces
2 Tbs olive oil (it’s allowed on Clean Monday!)
1/4 cup (4 Tbs) red wine vinegar
1 tin (400g) chopped tomatoes with juices
1 cup (240ml) tomato passata (thick tomato juice)
1/2 cup hot water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp allspice
1 bay leaf
500g short macaroni (like the type you use in Mac & Cheese)

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a large pan over high heat. Sautee the octopus till it releases its juices. When juices start bubbling add the vinegar.
  2. Continue cooking the octopus on high heat till almost all the liquid has evaporated. This should take about 6-8 minutes; you will see the juices thicken, then start to disappear.
  3. When the liquid has nearly all gone, tip the contents of the pan into the slow cooker (including the remaining liquid which by now is more like a dark pink sauce).
  4. Add all the other ingredients except the macaroni to the slow cooker and cook on low for 9 hours.
  5. After the octopus has cooked in its sauce and is nice and tender, you have two options:
    1. Add boiling water to the slow cooker and then the macaroni, and cook for about another half hour. Unfortunately I can’t tell you how much water to add because I chose option B.
    2. Take the octopus pieces out of the sauce, measure the sauce and tip it into a saucepan. Mine was 2 cups. Add another 6 cups of water and return the octopus to the pan. Bring it to a boil and add the macaroni. Cook on low heat until the pasta is cooked and has absorbed most of the sauce. Mine took about 30 minutes. This is a faffy way to do it but sometimes, when it comes to cooking pasta in its sauce, I just prefer to know how much liquid I’m working with.

Next time: I will be brave and throw the macaroni in the slow cooker at the end of cooking. I think I will add 2-3 cups of hot water, check it often, and top up with water as needed.

Note: You can cook this on the stovetop just as easily. Follow steps 1 and 2, then just add the rest of the ingredients to the same pan (make sure it’s a large saucepan). Cook on low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. Add water, bring back to a boil, add macaroni and cook a further 15 to 30 minutes.

Octopus from around the blogosphere:
Octopus Confit by Colombus Food Adventures
Slow-Cooked Octopus in Tomato Sauce by Porcini Chronicles
Slow Cooked Octopus “alla Luciana” by Culinaria Italia
Grilled Octopus by Kalofagas

And a fantastic Greek recipe round up for Lent, again by Kalofagas.

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