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Octopalooza: Eight Arms Three Ways

The enlightened Buddhist entity known as Avalokiteshvara has 1,000 arms, the better to relieve suffering. Kali, goddess of change, has 10, the better to create and destroy. As a busy parent, I would settle for merely eight — which brings me to the octopus.

It's said the octopus is the most intelligent of all invertebrates (a status I previously thought belonged to one of my old bosses). Yet what does it do with its formidable brainpower and multiple arms, other than solve mazes and open jars? We don't really know. The motives of the octopus, unlike those of Kali and Avalokiteshvara, are mysterious. And what do we do when we come across something we don't understand? We eat it, which is, in a nutshell, how natural selection works.

In the moral sphere, we may not know much about how the octopus behaves. But in the pot, it behaves very much like squid. As with squid, you have two choices when it comes to octopus: cook it fast and hot, or cook it low and slow. Anything in between, and you have something that tastes and feels very much like a rubber tire, minus the groovy tread, and the traction on snow and ice.

There are many ways to tenderize a full-grown octopus before choosing one of those preparations. The most picturesque is probably the most ancient — dashing it repeatedly against the rocks until the cartilage starts to break down. It's not for everyone. Even if you're not combat-shy in the kitchen, a 3- or 4-pound octopus can be as daunting as anything you ever ran across in biology class. For one thing, its pale cartilage and rose-tinged suction cups vaguely resemble a kitchen cleaning appliance that's forgotten its function. It's as unwieldy as a vacuum hose, and several times slimier.

My favorite ever baby octopus was served (and still is, far as I know) at Uncle Nick's Greek Cuisine in New York. It was, if I recall, barely charred on the edges, vinegary, a little sweet. With a little glass of rough red wine, I thought it was about the best way to start a date.

But the size, the scariness and the ritual bashing with its brutal overtones can all be avoided if you go with a baby octopus, which is tender and unintimidating — and can be had for a very persuasive $4.49 per frozen pound. Sometimes they even come pre-cleaned, which is what you want. (Otherwise, you have to remove the guts, the eyes and the beak. If you tend to anthropomorphize your food, or if deveining shrimp gives you the heebie-jeebies, stay clear of uncleaned octopus.)

My favorite ever baby octopus was served (and still is, far as I know) at Uncle Nick's Greek Cuisine in New York. It was, if I recall, barely charred on the edges, vinegary, a little sweet. With a little glass of rough red wine, I thought it was about the best way to start a date. According to Uncle Nick's kitchen, you just put some balsamic vinegar and oil on it, and grill it. But we all know things are never as simple as they seem.

I've found with the balsamic vinegar preparation that it's best to blanch the octopus in a bit of boiling water first, then give it a good long marinade before trying to grill it. If you like to complicate things, you could give the octopus a long seething with olive oil in the oven, followed by stewing in red wine and tomatoes. If you like them simpler, you could just go with the lemon and oil grilled octopus, the way they do in the kids' cookbook I recently tested.

Either way, watch the cooking time vigilantly, and don't be afraid to test. If you're going for fast and hot octopus, it's easy to overcook, but it's also possible to undercook. This is what happened to me in the crazy press to get dinner on the table the other night. I rushed the octopus onto a platter and hauled it inside, where my son, who is nothing if not a pusher of boundaries, had seized upon the eight-armed novelties before my own two arms could pour the milk, find the napkins and locate a beer.

If overdone octopus is tough and chewy, underdone octopus is stretchy, durable and quite strong-tasting. Noah's jaws slowly ground to a halt, and the acquisitive gleam in his eyes faded to a worried frown. After several angst-filled moments, the boy who, like a young sea god, demands the eyes from every fish served in his house, finally managed: "It has ... too much ... flavor."

If Octopus 1 was not a success, Octopus 2 (blanched and grilled), 3 (marinated and grilled) and 4 (stewed) made up for it. I began to foresee the octopus' transition from deep-sea enigma to weeknight snack.

But the beauty and mystery of the octopus remained uppermost in my mind, along with that guilty sense of stewardship familiar to all carnivores. My appetite could certainly accommodate a weekly rendezvous with an octopus. But could the octopus?

A little research revealed that the common octopus is one of those species whose habitat is sometimes badly overfished by trawler nets. There are sustainable octopus fisheries, but it's often hard to trace your source. And surely even 10-armed Kali would hesitate to destroy the future of an endangered species. I wish I didn't know it, but now that I do, the octopus will have to join monkfish in that circle of species I eat avidly, thoughtfully and not terribly often.

So when you're enjoying octopus, use your nonfork arm to pick up the phone. Ask your supplier to be on the lookout for sustainable octopus from Hawaii or the Gulf of California. And with the other arms you don't have, count the many blessings that come from the sea. I guarantee you, eight won't be enough.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.