This post is sponsored by Chef Camp and written by Chelsea Korth. Nettie Colón is a chef-instructor at Chef Camp Session 2 to be held Sept. 8-10 in the Minnesota north woods. Join us to experience her fireside cooking skills and stories in person.
Nettie Colón swings the screen door open with a “hello,” a big smile, and the offer of a glass of rosé. Her home is colorful and full of collections. I can see that the people who live here have traveled well and have stories to tell.
Colón leads me outside to her lush back yard. Smoke clouds escape from her grill in a rolling stream, and she blows air into the center, testing the fire’s readiness. Tiny glowing specks of ash spray out like magic. She transfers onto the grill a halved red onion, two Hungarian wax peppers, a head of garlic, and two Roma tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Flames jump around the vegetables, blistering the tomatoes and peppers and blackening the thin skin of the garlic. She adds the charred vegetables to a pot of boiling water.
She demonstrates how to clean a whole octopus, then holds it inches over the rolling boil, the tentacles dangling, ready to dunk. Colón looks over at me with eyes that say, “Are you ready for this?” She submerges the octopus, and when she lifts the body out of the water, the tentacles have coiled into deep red twists the color of cooked lobster. She dunks the octopus twice more to tenderize the meat — the color turning more vibrant each time — before submerging it to simmer for another 45 minutes.
While the octopus simmers, Colón creates her grilled-lemon coriander sauce, a combination of halved, golden-yellow lemons, grilled and hand juiced, toasted coriander seeds, honey, parsley, serrano chilies, and a thin stream of olive oil — blended until the mixture is smooth. The sauce is creamy and bright green when finished. She pours it into a clay bowl ready for serving.
Once the octopus is cooled, she cuts each tentacle, at a diagonal exposing the white inner flesh. Just as she is about to put the tentacles on the grill, we hear thunder, and the trickle of raindrops quickly turns into a true storm. Colón grabs an umbrella and holds it over the fire, unfazed. She jumps back into a story about her upbringing in Puerto Rico, where she lived from the time she was four until age 15. Her expression softens as she remembers the summers she spent in Puerto Rico with her grandmother. Her playground was her grandmother’s land in Utuado, a mountainous region where coffee, passion fruit, mangoes, yucca, plantains, lemons, limes, oranges, and pineapple are grown. Everything Colón and her grandmother ate was made from what grew on the land.
The tentacles are now crispy on all sides, and the storm has rolled through as quickly as it came. We’re ready to plate. We gather the carefully crafted parts of the recipe and set the table as they do in Puerto Rican culture, where extra food is always ready for a neighbor who might stop by for a quick conversation. The anticipation of an extra guest has shaped Colón’s hospitality. “It is better to make the table longer than build a taller fence,” she says. She lives by this motto, and it’s her mission at her business, Red Hen Gastrolab. She believes that now — more than ever before — is the time to sit down at the table with neighbors and new friends from all walks of life.
“In Puerto Rico,” she says, “we always shared what food we had with others. It is what we were able to offer each other. Where one can eat, two can eat. Where two can eat, three can eat, and so on.” The act of taking care of and being with each other provides the extra nourishment.
It was her memories of Puerto Rico, the Yucatan and Sardinia that inspired this dish. The blended flavors and techniques pay homage to her life, upbringing, and travels.
“I grew up eating octopus escabeche with my dad,” Colón says, “and on a trip to the Yucatan, I tried a preparation from a Mayan chef who charred octopus and adobo. I fell in love with the dish and learned that dipping the octopus before submerging and cooking it helps to tenderize the meat. I was also inspired by my recent trip to northern Sardinia, a region that pulls many of their flavors from the Mediterranean coast of Spain.”
The octopus is served family-style in a shallow, wide handmade pottery bowl. Tender green kale and boiled new potatoes are layered first, with the octopus tentacles over the top, a beautiful contrast of charred, deep-red skin and bright-white inner flesh. Colón drizzles the salad with her green lemon-coriander sauce, and we toast our humid, sweating glasses of rosé to each other, as new friends seated at a generous table.
Porcelain and stoneware dishes provided by the Northern Clay Center. Visit their gallery, or shop online, to fill your own table with handmade pieces from the top ceramic artists in the region.
CHARRED OCTOPUS WITH GRILLED-LEMON CORIANDER SAUCE
- 3 oregano sprigs
- 3 thyme sprigs
- 2 Hungarian wax peppers, charred
- 1 head garlic, charred
- 2 Roma tomatoes, charred
- ½ red onion, charred