An Ingredient Worth Trying: Octopus

It might look unusual, but prepared with toasty, smoky couscous, this Tunisian recipe will make you see octopus in a new way. One taste of this simple, flavorful dish, and you will be won over.

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Photo by Augapfel/FlickrCC

Tunisia's been prominent on my plate (both intellectually and culinarily) for the last six or eight months, since I returned from a trip there to visit my friends the Mahjoubs. This dish is an excellent meal I've been making with a fair bit of regularity since I've gotten back. If you're up for a slight departure from your every day cooking patterns, this recipe is an extremely good way to go. Obviously we all have our own tastes, but I seriously love this dish. It's very good, not hard to do, and to me, typical of the great twists and turns that have drawn me ever closer to Tunisian cooking in the last few months.

Tunisia really was full of good surprises--octopus and couscous is certainly not something I thought would be high on my list of post-travel Tunisian culinary tune-ups. I'd expected to get great oil, olives, vegetables, couscous, dates, and of course, harissa, but I hadn't even given a thought to seafood. And yet, it turns out the fish market in Tunis is one of the most impressive I've seen anywhere. Restaurants and home recipes use fish in multiple forms, many, happily, in very unexpected but very delicious ways. This dish is one of those. It really is a great meal--I can safely say that I've eaten more octopus in the last month of making this dish than in the previous 12 years put together.

While it's not really the star player in the dish, the Mahjoub couscous is really fantastic. It's made completely by hand from the wheat that the Mahjoubs grow organically on their farm. The wheat is harvested in June, dried, and milled into semolina right on the farm. Come August the wheat is ready to be worked and turned into the couscous. I should say that the Mahjoubs actually refer to it mostly by its "first name"--what you'll see on the jar is "M'Hamsa Couscous"--and they almost always refer to it as "M'hamsa." I'm intuiting that they do this because, over there, couscous is about as common as spaghetti in the south of Italy. That it's handmade is what makes this one so remarkable.

"We have a whole team," he told me. "Every woman has her role. It's like an orchestra."

Here in the States, where couscous can sometimes seem like an exotic dish, just finding it in some places seems like kind of an achievement. But in a country where couscous is king, differentiating between the mass-market industrial offerings and the old-style, hand-made stuff is a big deal. "M'hamsa" means "by hand" in Arabic, and that's exactly what this is. The ground semolina is mixed slowly with water and touch of sea salt and extra virgin olive oil (from their farm). The couscous is very literally hand-rolled and then dried the old way in the sun.

"We make it a first time, then let it rest three days, and then we roll it again," Majid explained. In total, it takes about ten days to do. "We have a whole team," he told me. "Every woman has her role. It's like an orchestra."

When you cook the couscous on its own, an amazing toasty, wheaty aroma fills the kitchen and carries all the way back to the flavor. In fact, the only downer of this dish is that with all those other flavors in it, the incredible, stand-alone grace and beauty of the couscous is slightly covered up--it's there, but to Majid's remark above, it's like listening to a great orchestra instead of going to show by a fantastic soloist. The good news is that both concerts--the couscous in both forms--are fantastic. And that since we eat every day (and probably listen to good music, too), there's plenty of room for both.

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Photo by House of Sims/FlickrCC

Everyone I've talked to that's tasted the couscous for the first time is blown away by how good it is when you do nothing but cook it in water with salt. It's hard to believe how much more flavorful it is than other couscous that's out there on the market, but it is. For me it was the revelation of the belated glimpse of the obvious that great couscous would be just like great spaghetti from Martelli--it's got amazing flavor in its own right, so it's not just a vehicle for some other sauce.

In the stew with the octopus, beans, harissa, and tomato, the couscous adds a wonderful wheaty, almost smoky flavor and a great bit of tender but firm texture. The whole dish is spicy from the harissa, subtly sweet from the tomato, smoky from the couscous, hearty from the beans without being at all heavy. A couple of long, meaty tentacles sliced up would be enough to make a good meal for three or four folks, but you can increase or decrease the amount as you wish. If you can't find the octopus you could do the dish with squid instead. I've also actually done it with fresh fish too, though in that case I add the fish when I add the couscous so it's not all overcooked. In any case, it's pretty delicious!

To order some of the Mahjoub harissa, click here. For the Mahjoub couscous, click here.