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, 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.
To Prepare Octopus:
2 pounds raw fresh octopus (large)
4 quarts water
2 teaspoons rock salt
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 small lemon, cut in half
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 whole bay leaves
2 green onions rimmed to 5 inches whole
1/2 medium green bell pepper, diced
1/2 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 small red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves peeled, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground black peppercorns
1 teaspoon pulverized rock salt
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon dried)
1/3 cup pitted black olive
1/3 cup capers
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
4 lettuce leaves, washed and patted dry
1 bunch of watercress, washed, with large stems removed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Garnish: 4 thick slices of tomato, cut in halves, 4 lemon wedges, 4 lime wedges
Rinse octopus thoroughly in warm running water for 1 minute. Then place in a stockpot with 2 to 3 quarts of water. Add whole rock salt, whole peppercorns, lemon, garlic, 2 bay leaves, and green onions.
Place on high heat and bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and continue cooking for approximately 1 hour or until octopus is tender. The octopus must be completely covered with water while cooking; when water level diminishes, add more, otherwise the meat will not become tender.
The cooking time will be affected by the size of the octopus. As you check for the water level, also check for tenderness of the meat by sticking a fork through the fattest part of the tentacles. The fork should go through without effort when the meat is done and ready to be taken out.
Once done, transfer octopus to a colander and place under cold running water. Slide your hand up and down the tentacles so as to remove the top layer of the slippery tissues. The octopus head has an inner lining; turn the head inside out and remove the tissue.
To make the salad, dice the octopus into pieces approximately l/4-inch thick. Using a glass salad bowl (wood or metal will adversely alter the taste), combine octopus meat, diced green and red peppers, red onion, minced garlic, ground black peppercorns, pulverized salt, oregano, olives, capers, olive oil, lime juice, red wine vinegar, and 3 bay leaves. Toss vigorously, then cover and store at room temperature (but away from direct heat) for at least 1 hour.
To serve: layer individual salad plates with green lettuce leaves and a bed of watercress. Using a slotted spoon, scoop a mound of octopus salad onto the plate, then sprinkle chopped cilantro on the top.
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.