I was one of 40 food bloggers invited to participate in the 3rd Annual Colombo Marsala & Toscana Saporita Recipe Challenge. From there, the competition was pared down to a lucky 12. What an honor to be amongst the finalists.
The challenge: Create an original recipe — based on creativity, taste, and visual appeal — featuring Colombo Marsala. I received one bottle of dry Marsala and one bottle of sweet Marsala, along with $100 for ingredients.
The grand prize, an all-inclusive trip for two to Italy, including a one-week cooking course at Toscana Saporita taught by celebrity chef and author Sandra Lotti. How cool is that? Fingers crossed.
All 12 recipes and photos will be posted on the Colombo Marsala website on November 30th and voting will go live December 1st through December 15th. The winner will be announced December 20th. Check out Colombo Marsala’s website and cast your vote — for octopus 🙂
While sipping on the dry and sweet Marsala (a fun proposition to be certain), making mental notes about their flavor profiles, I thought long and hard, hard and long….what to do with this versatile (and decidedly tasty) wine???
Colombo Marsala wine comes from the Trapani Province of Western Sicily. I wrote about a trip I took to Sicily here a few years back. What a magical, gem of an island, the food, the wine, the beaches, the people…I could go on and on. But today, I’m here to talk about Marsala.
So, the Colombo Marsala Dry. It has a pleasing hint of nutty sweetness with subtle raisiny notes. I wanted to prepare something savory, but something outside the box, something you may not think of right off the bat (something other than your typical chicken Marsala preparation); as the challenge was to create an innovative recipe. After much contemplation, I narrowed it down to two ideas: 1) Marsala Braised Octopus with Crispy Capers and 2) Marsala Braised Rabbit.
I’ll post the rabbit dish at a later date (as it was quite tasty too), but today is all about the Marsala braised octopus.
Octopus is one of my all-time favorite foods. When properly cooked, octopus is very tender. To achieve this tenderness, you need to let the octopus braise for a good hour; anything less and the octopus is very, very chewy (which I’ve learned through much trial and error).
While this may sound intimidating, it’s really quite easy to prepare. This dish is basically a one pot meal; you just place all the ingredients in a large pot or Dutch oven and let it simmer away (until the octopus is tender). Then add the clams and/or mussels at the very end.
In the past, I’ve cooked octopus in red wine; so I thought, why not let the octopus braise in Marsala instead. The thing about octopus is that it’s quite mild, a blank canvas for your favorite flavors.
The octopus itself exudes a tremendous amount of liquid (which is briny and salty like the sea) as it cooks down. The addition of the Marsala, tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices, makes for a delectable broth. The Marsala contributes a welcoming dimension with it’s nuanced, complex notes of of raisin, honey, and vanilla. The briny, salty capers help to balance out the sweet undertones from the Marsala. Salty and sweet go hand and hand.
I crisped up some capers in a hot pan with extra virgin olive oil. The capers need just a few minutes in the hot oil until they get nice and crispy, and are an ideal counterpoint to the touch of ephemeral sweetness from the Marsala.
Fregula sarda is a type of Sardinian pasta made with semolina flour, rolled into small balls and then toasted in the oven. It’s reminiscent of Israeli couscous, but with a much nuttier flavor. I served the Marsala braised octopus over the fregula, which acts as a sponge to soak up all the wonderful flavors of the sauce. If you can’t find fregula, substitute with Israeli couscous, or simply serve the Marsala braised octopus with some nice, crusty bread.
This dish would be a worthy addition to any Feast of the Seven Fishes celebration.
1 4-pound octopus
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large onion, small dice
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 14-ounce can of tomatoes, crushed
8 ounces Colombo Marsala Dry
1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
6 sprigs of fresh thyme, divided
1 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed thoroughly
1 dozen mussels, scrubbed and debearded
*2 tablespoons crispy capers for garnish
chopped parsley for garnish
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest for garnish
Serve over fregula sarda (or Israeli couscous) or with some thick, crusty bread
Place the octopus in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Cover and cook over low heat until the octopus is bright pink and has exuded most of its liquid, about 20-30 minutes. Keep the pot on low. Remove the octopus and cut into eight pieces, separating the tentacles (discard the head). Chop the tentacles into roughly 1-inch long pieces. Place the octopus pieces back into the pot.
While the octopus is cooking, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions (and about 4 minutes later, add the garlic), season with salt and pepper, and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Transfer the onions and garlic to the pot with the chopped octopus. Stir a minute or two, then add the tomatoes, Marsala, paprika, and four sprigs of fresh thyme to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the octopus is tender, about 50-60 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
When the octopus is tender, add the clams (they’ll take about 5-10 minutes to open). When most of the clams are open, add the mussels (they’ll take about 2 minutes to open) along with the leaves from two sprigs of thyme. Discard any clams or mussels that do not open.
Serve the Marsala braised octopus over fregula sarda or Israeli couscous, or with thick, crusty bread. Garnish with *crispy capers, chopped parsley, and a little lemon zest. Buon Appetito!
*To crisp up the capers: Heat a small skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the capers and cook over medium heat, about 3 minutes, until crispy. With a slotted spoon, remove the capers from the skillet, and set over paper towels to drain.