Littleneck touts itself as Gowanus’ own little New England-style roadside seafood shack. And yeah, they’ve got steamers, oysters, and lobster rolls. Good as those are, to regulars they’re just a front for the parade of sometimes wacky, always crazy-good specials rolling out of chef Josephh Aponte’s kitchen. We stopped by to chat with Joe and to try one of his latest concoctions, grilled octopus with chili lime popcorn puree.
Alright Joe, what should we have today?
I do a grilled octopus with a chili lime popcorn puree. I’ve done it as a special a few times. It’s pretty good, and it’s the kind of fun/interesting/stupid thing that I like to do in the kitchen, so that might be cool to try.
Tell us about it.
It really started with popcorn. We always like to do seasonal stuff here, and this time of year is a little bit tough. Your options at the market are limited. I was at the market a few weeks ago. I got there late because I had to work brunch and it got busy and I couldn’t get away, so I ended up getting to the market at like two o’clock in the afternoon. You’re not going to find anything good at the market at two o’clock in the afternoon at this time of year.
There was like, kohlrabi. That’s it. That’s what happens when all the really big shot chefs get to the market before you do in January. I’m asking people, “Hey, you got any spinach?” They’re like, “Nah, I just sold it all to David Chang.” So basically the only thing I could find was popcorn. One of the farmers had their own popcorn kernels. I was like, “OK, I guess I’ll take the popcorn.”
So I’m in a cab on the way back from the market with my popcorn, and I’m kind of feeling a little desperate. I’m freaking out a little bit. I’m like, “Shit, what the hell am I going to make with freaking popcorn?” I’m thinking and thinking, trying to come up with something.
I thought about how I once had this ceviche from one of the food trucks at the Red Hook ballfields, and they served it with a popcorn garnish, and it was really good. I was like, “Ok, that’s something.” Then I’m thinking, “You know what I really like? Chili and lime seasoned popcorn.” I’ve had that a few times and I really like those flavors.
Then I thought, “You know, the saltiness and that unique flavor of popcorn would probably go pretty good with octopus.” But I didn’t just want to scatter popcorn kernels on the plate with octopus – I wanted to incorporate the flavor into the dish in a different way. So I decided to do octopus with a popcorn puree. I was like, “I don’t know. Fuck it. I’ll try it and see if it works.”
A lot of octopus recipes are really traditional. I don’t see many people veering off into unexpected directions with octopus. People may take a traditional preparation and put their own spin on it or refine it a little bit, but that’s really it. The way I’d done it before was with charred shallots and citrus and stuff like that. I just liked the idea of trying something with popcorn. It seemed like a good way to go in another direction with it.
Look, I know it sounds stupid. This is one of those dishes where I ended up coming up with something that people would think was really awesome if they were stoned. I’ve only ever smoked pot once in my life, but I’m a fat kid, so I know all about munchies. I grew up a fat kid. I definitely know how to enjoy some food, and I like coming up with stupid stuff that tastes really good.
And I think this is pretty good. So there you go.
So how do you make it?
You start with the octopus. There are a lot of different ideas out there about how you should cook octopus. So many recipes tell you how you have to make octopus. I remember one thing saying it won’t get tender unless you cook it with a wine cork. Everyone seems to have their own secrets to making tender octopus, and pretty much none of them makes any sense.
I learned how to do it from an Italian guy at a place called Aliseo Osteria Del Borgo on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights. It’s a great little place. I was helping him out one day and we were going to make an octopus dish. I was like, “Oh what do you do with the octopus?” He was like, “I put it in the water and I cook it until it’s tender. That’s it.”
I was like, “That’s it? Nothing else? No tricks?”
He was like, “No. Maybe you can put some lemon in there if you want, some salt, but all you really want is the flavor of the octopus. If you have nice octopus, it has nice flavor. You don’t need anything else.”
So I simmer the octopus until it’s tender. I let it go for about an hour and a half at least. If it’s a smaller octopus, maybe a little less time. If it’s a bigger octopus, maybe some more. It’s ready when it’s ready. My little trick is, I’ll take a pot, put the octopus in and cover it with salted water. Then I put a baking sheet tray on top of the pot and put a heavy can or something on top of that and let it go. You’ll see the steam shooting out the sides after a little while. It’s a little bit like a pressure cooker. When I take off the tray an hour and a half later, most of the water has evaporated and the octopus is nice and tender.
Once the octopus is done, I chill it. You want to chill it so it’ll firm up a little bit before you put it on the grill – it’s just easier to grill if it’s cool. Then it goes on the grill. We just want to get some nice sear marks on it to get a little bit of that charred, smoky thing going on, to enhance the mild flavor of the octopus, and we want to heat it all the way through again, so it’s got that really tender texture.
For the popcorn puree, I just pop the popcorn, soak it in some cream and melted butter, puree it, and pass it through the strainer so it has a really smooth mashed potato kind of texture. Straining it just gives it a touch of refinement. You get that buttery, salty movie theater popcorn flavor with a really creamy, smooth texture. It’s nice.
The popcorn puree goes on the plate with the octopus, and then we finish with some olive oil, some chili flake and a little yuzu juice to give it that chili lime flavor. I love using yuzu – it has this really nice bright citrusy flavor that’s sort of somewhere between lemon and lime. So you get that charred, grilled, very mildly briny and meaty flavor of the octopus, with the buttery, salty, creamy popcorn puree. The yuzu gives is that hit of acid, that lemon-lime flavor that really lightens the dish up. The chili flake adds a little heat. Everything works together. It’s stupid and fun and tastes pretty good.
In a nutshell, I took the idea of chili lime popcorn and I just cooked some octopus with it. You ever watch The Sopranos? You know Artie, the chef at Vesuvio, the restaurant Tony always eats at? There’s this episode where he shoots this rabbit for eating the arugula in his garden. He goes through his grandfather’s hand written recipes and finds one for this rabbit dish. Right when he’s about to close for the night and the staff is all gone, this couple comes in and asks if they can eat. He tells them, “You can eat, but you’re eating what I give you to eat.” He brings out that rabbit.
This dish is kind of like that. You’re eating what I give you to eat. It doesn’t have to make sense. I got popcorn and octopus. Here you go. That’s it. [laughter.]
So Joe, how did you end up cooking, and how did you end up here at Littleneck?
I grew up here in Brooklyn, in the East Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy area. My grandfather was a chef all of his life and had a cooking school on the Upper West Side after he retired from the kitchen. He was like, “I’m just gonna teach these housewives up here how to cook some fine French food that they can make at dinner parties.” That was all the rage in the eighties. So that’s what he did and I helped him after school and on weekends and everything.
You know, it was one of those things where he was only going to show them how to clean four or five Brussels sprouts, but the actual dish was going to need forty or fifty of them, so I’d be the guy who cleaned and prepped all the other Brussels sprouts. That’s where I learned most of it.
I didn’t set out to cook. I played some baseball in high school and I fully intended to catch for the New York Mets for a living. My grandfather was the one who gave me a shot of reality. He was like, “I don’t think that’s gonna happen, pal, so why don’t you learn how to cook. You can make some money and you can go to college at the same time. You go to school during the day and you cook at night. It’s something you’ll always be able to do.”
So I kind of went to cooking school. The New School has a cooking program. I went there, got a certificate, and started working in restaurants. At one point it was just a job, and at another point it became, like, a passion, something I really loved to do.
After a bunch of different jobs in all kinds of places, I ended up as the chef at the Jakewalk on Smith Street, just doing small plates and cocktails. I was working a lot. Summertime was coming up and I wanted to take the summer off but I needed some money, so I spent the summer working at the Gowanus Yacht Club, this cool outdoor bar on Smith Street. I was just flipping sausages and burgers, and enjoying hanging out outside. When it was late in the season and we were getting ready to close for winter I was like, “OK, I gotta find a job.”
Alan Harding owns Gowanus Yacht Club. He’s a pretty well known chef. He kind of started the whole Smith Street thing a decade or so ago. He opened a bunch of restaurants around here. He’s a badass. I told him I was looking for work and he was like, “What, you actually cook?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “You cook anywhere I’ve heard of?” I was like, “Yeah I’ve cooked at some nice places.” He goes, “You wanna be my sous chef at this new place called Littleneck down on 3rd Avenue?” I go, “That’s pretty amazing you ask, because I just dropped my resume off there, to see whether they’re looking for any barbacks.” [laughter.]
So I applied to be a barback and I ended up being the sous chef. Alan was only coming in temporarily to help get the place open, to get everyone on their feet and to act as a mentor to Andy and Aaron, the owners. I think he did a sublime job. When he was ready to leave, he just handed me the reins. He was like, “Ok, you ready? Yeah, you’re ready. Here you go.”
They gave me the opportunity and I’m very grateful for it. I’m having a lot of fun. I’d like to be here for the rest of my life. I think if I’m here for another year I want to ask to buy in on the next place. Aaron said, “What do you think about Littleneck Las Vegas?” [laughter.] I’m like, “No, what about Littleneck Montauk?” Live on the beach in Montauk and cook? That, I could do.
Littleneck is located at at 288 3rd Avenue, between President and Carroll, in Gowanus.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.