On a blustery spring morning, army reserves trained on frost-laden grounds – evidence of a lingering winter. Nearby, college students lugged boxes of color for the spring festival, Holi, while two Orthodox Jewish boys raced up the hill for Saturday service clutching their black hats tightly, and javelin throwers, bundled in sweatshirts, trained before their competition. In the same neighborhood, carts serving Korean noodles, vegetarian lunch, Thai basil chicken, lamb kebabs, and kielbasa hot dogs had begun preparations for the lunchtime crowd.
For a moment, this corner of the world was in harmony, even as people and their differences brushed by one another as they went about their business. Was this a melting pot, a salad bowl, a symphony, or a mosaic of cultures? Maybe because I was cold, I thought that this moment was represented well by a stew analogy. A good stew starts with hearty ingredients that form the base: meat, fish, or plenty of vegetables; next, add wine, water, or stock, and let the dish simmer slowly; finally, season with herbs and spices for the perfect balance. The stew encompasses all the distinct flavors from the disparate ingredients to become a satisfying one-pot dish!
It must have been happenstance, as I returned home to a message from my Mauritian friend in Britain with a recipe for octopus stew. The recipe was perfectly light for a spring meal, but the stew was a warming dish to combat the chills.
There wasn’t any octopus available when I went to buy them, so I looked for similar flavors and textures (squid, cuttlefish, and octopus are in the same family with arms and bodies called mantles) amidst the seafood on display. I added mussels (my favorite seafood and besides, they have a bite to them) to complement the flavor and texture of squid. My modified version of the stew used 24 small mussels and 1lb squid.
Mauritian Octopus Stew
Octopus – 1 large, chopped into ½-inch pieces
Vegetable oil – 1 tablespoon
Shallot – 1, chopped
Garlic cloves – 2, sliced
Ginger – 2–inch piece, sliced
Red chilies – 3
Sprigs of thyme or curry leaves
Tomatoes – 8 large or 1 can
Coriander/cilantro – 1 bunch, chopped
Spring onions/Green onions – 3, chopped
Salt and pepper
- Heat the oil in a pot.
- Add the shallots and stir for a minute until it browns
- Add the ginger, garlic, and chilies. Stir for a few seconds.
- Add the herbs and tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes are soft.
- Add the octopus. Cover and cook until soft (about an hour). (I added the squid to the pot, along with ½ cup of the liquid from the steamer. I steamed the mussels separately. Squid cooks in about four minutes before it becomes rubbery and chewy.)
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Sprinkle the spring onions on top.
My friend suggested pairing the octopus stew with sautéed spinach.
To make this, fry 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a 1-inch piece of chopped ginger, and three red chilies in about 1 tsp. of oil. Add a bag of spinach. Spinach cooks very quickly, releasing a lot of moisture; cook it uncovered at high heat for about two minutes or until the leaves wilt. Season with salt and pepper.
I was in the process of emptying out my fridge, so I used a bag of spinach, two boxes of mushrooms, garlic, ginger, and dried red chilies. It made for a substantial vegetarian side dish.