That Blank Stare

You would think everyone at my house would be living a life of culinary bliss, eagerly anticipating the next plate placed before them. But it ain’t always so…

Polpo diavolo

Everything is grand when I serve breaded chicken cutlets, hamburgers or pizza. Unless I try to slip some anchovies on top. But certain dishes elicit a blank stare from the kids — even from the wife on occasion — that says: “You expect me to eat that??” My wife, who grew up in an ichthyophobic household, has learned to appreciate the less confrontational types of fish. She’ll eat most kinds of sushi, and even likes my Italian pickled sardines. But she has trouble with anything that is remotely redolent of the sea. When I buy sea urchin, it’s a party of one.

I love sweet breads, and would experiment more cooking with organ meats and offal. I believe in the nose-to-tail, no-waste philosophy, born of necessity, of most cultures in the world. But again, I’d be exiled to a separate table while my family ate their own dinner in peace.

The other night, I made a sweet-and-sour Sicilian sardine spaghetti with tomato, raisins, pine nuts and pecorino. I’d found a nice little package of octopus on sale at the Japanese market, so I made up a dish of garlicky octopus antipasto — über-spicy, since I knew I was going to be the only one eating it. “Polpo diavolo,” I called it — “Devil’s octopus” in Italian. For the kids, I carefully extracted strands of the spaghetti with no raisins, sardines or pine nuts and covered them in a thick snowy blanket of parmesan. But even though the noodles were so disguised, residual dots of the offending ingredients were detected. And a battle ensued. (Inexplicably, these are the same kids that relish ripe French cheeses — the stinkier the better.) Once I served my son a coleslaw. “Dad, what are those little dots??” he asked suspiciously, pointing to the celery seeds. I couldn’t resist. “Those are little bugs.”

Flynn protesting his plate of sardine spaghetti

When I was 11 or so, my family made our first trip to Europe. We swapped our house in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and spent the summer in Europe — half based in an apartment in Paris, the other half at a home in Montpellier in the south of France, from which we made sojourns into Switzerland, Italy and Spain. I remember being at a restaurant in Nice, and my parents ordering fruits de mer. What arrived looked like a tidepool in a bowl. Much to my parents’ surprise, my sister — four years my junior — and I dug in! I’m not sure if it was bravado engendered by being in a foreign land or that it actually looked appetizing. I rather expect that when I eventually find myself in a similar restaurant with my wife and kids overseas, staring down another bowl of fruits de mer, that once again I’ll be on my own. And actually, that’s just fine — more for me. At least they got the stinky cheese gene.

*   *   *

Polpo Diavolo
serves 2 -4 as an appetizer

1/2 lb cooked octopus*, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil plus 2 tbsp.
2 large cloves garlic
1/2 lemon
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
flaky sea salt to taste

(*note: You can get cooked octopus at a Japanese market, either in whole chunks or sliced thin. If you don’t have a Japanese market near you, try your local fish market. If you don’t have a good local fish market, try the ocean. Or friendly up to a Greek fisherman.)

Slice one of the garlic cloves thinly. Grate the second clove on a fine Microplane grater. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, and cook sliced garlic clove until golden, about five minutes. Squeeze in lemon juice, toss in octopus slices, red pepper and grated garlic clove, and remove from heat. Let sit for one minute, then scoop octopus slices and garlic into a serving dish, leaving residual juices and olive oil in pan. Return pan to stove on high heat and reduce juices by 2/3, about 2 minutes. Drizzle reduced sauce over octopus, followed by the 2 tbsp. olive oil. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and serve with small forks or toothpicks.

* To make this more of a meal, toss into half a pound of cooked spaghetti or linguini, as I did with my leftovers!

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Benjamin Thompson
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 14:26:41

    Ha ha! I once tried to trick my wife into a cold Greek octopus salad, kind of like a ‘meze’ style by packing it for a late evening concert picnic. I figured the darkness and Counting Crows would distract her. She did eat a few bites before the gig was up and then she protested and investigated by moving her plate closer to the candlelight whereupon she saw the suckers on the octopus legs. She retaliated by drinking all the wine.


  2. mom
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 14:42:30

    I LOVE ichthyophobic.


  3. Lisa Gaskin
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 18:19:26

    and you come by the “sneaking strange things into kids’ palates” gene honestly. Mom would come home with frog’s legs and insist that we taste the “squabby”…


  4. Thelma Lee
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 23:07:10

    Scott I need some recipes for couscous or quinoa salad. Fresh and not too heavy. Help!



    • scolgin
      Aug 19, 2011 @ 23:23:21

      Okay, but first… who is Scott!?? ; )

      Don’t start talking about quinoa or you’ll make me mad. Couscous, on the other hand, I love. The whole wheat kind they sell at Trader Joe’s is ridiculously good. The best I can offer is to slow roast some root vegetables for an hour or so — carrots, onions, turnips. Cook your couscous per the package instructions in some good quality chicken stock with 1/4 cup raisins. It only cooks for about 5 minutes, and then you cover and let it steam. When it’s done steaming, throw in a plop (2 – 4 tbsp.) of sweet cream butter and your roasted vegetables, toss, season to taste with salt and pepper.

      If you insist on quinoa, cook it per the instructions. Do the same thing as above with the veggies. Let everything cool. Chop up some mint and tomatoes, throw it all together with a liberal amount of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, some toasted pine nuts and salt and pepper to taste.

      How’s that?


  5. Thelma Lee
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 23:47:37

    I adore you! Thanks! I like Trader Joe whole wheat couscous a lot and this is a great recipe. I have done the Q word with only mint, tomatoes and citrus in the past.


  6. Thelma Lee
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 00:03:12

    P.S. Sean (I know it’s you…brain fade): quinoa is pretty good with julienned zucchini and the usual nut, garlic and oil brigade. But then again, couscous would be better in this application too………


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