Since most Puerto Ricans are Catholic and the fundamental teachings of the Church were, traditionally, not to be questioned but acted upon, one of the practices most conscientiously adhered to was the observance of Lent, known as Cuaresma or forty days. The peak of this rite was reached during Holy Week when virtually everything stopped and no work was performed. A blanket of pious solemnity would cover The Island, and most hearts and minds were preoccupied with prayers for miracles and the coming and passing of Christ.
Countless tales of redeeming miracles for the true believer were told, and eerie tales of punishment for the transgressors abounded. One of my favorite warnings was, "Do not use the knife or it will turn to blood." I waited many disappointing years to see this metamorphosis! There were times when I was tempted to defy the warning, but I could never muster enough courage to go through with it.
Out of fear and respect, most people abstained from using knives and sharp objects in their homes and at work. Slaughtering of livestock would cease and no meat would be prepared or served. It was during this time that the majority of Puerto Ricans turned to two other logical sources of food: fish from the sea and tubers from the land. The abundance of seafood on the coastal regions of The Island and the availability of springtime fruit and vegetables from the interior during Cuaresma provided kitchens with the natural ingredients that were needed to create flavorful and nutritional dishes that easily satisfied the most demanding and holy palate.
Since most salads were destined to be served as main dinner courses, they needed to be hearty, diversified, and healthy, as well as have readily available and affordable ingredients. Refrigeration was limited, so preservation without contamination was an important factor when choosing fresh, raw food. Octopus (pulpo) and conch (carrucho) became the popular seafood choices. Both are inherently large, chewy, flavorful, and in abundance. with the proper preparation (boiling at high temperatures to kill toxins, and employing the enzymes contained in lemon, lime, and vinegar to cure the meat), and using the preservative properties of combined herbs and spices, the octopus and conch behave very well and can keep for an extended period of time. The longer the curing time (pickling), the softer and more flavorful the fish becomes while submerged in the marinade.
Although one of the popular methods applied was the curing of the live octopus in a spiced rum marinade (see "Seafoods" chapter), I have introduced a more realistic and acceptable salad recipe for the contemporary palate, applying a fast-cooking method along with an on-the-spot marinade. Octopus and conch can be purchased at most fresh fish markets in the United States, especially in Latino or Asian communities. For marinated octopus or conch see the "Seafoods" chapter.
Garnish: 4 thick slices of tomato, cut in halves, 4 lemon wedges, 4 lime wedges
For a complete lunch or dinner on a hot summer day, serve with White Rice, red beans and boiled plantain, or Yellow Rice, black beans, and Marinated Yuca, or Breadfruit Tostones on the side.
Variations: For Conch Salad, substitute octopus with 2 pounds of conch meat. Using a sharp knife, cut into thin fillets then use a meat mallet to pound both sides of the fillets to tenderize the conch. Follow the Octopus Salad recipe instructions for boiling, then coarsely chop the conch meat and follow the octopus salad directions for mixing.
New & Traditional Puerto Rican Cuisine
by Robert Rosado & Judith Healy Rosado
(Reprinted with permission.)
Also see Homestyle Puerto Rican Cooking
This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007
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