All conched out? Never!

Christmas was indeed white here in the Northeast. And so was the next day and the next day and....

Right about now, as the relentless snowfalls continue and I anticipate yet another white-knuckle commute, my mind wanders to swaying palm trees, feet-scorching sand, and fresh conch drizzled with lime.

Yes, conch. I've come to associate the mollusk with the beautiful, pink-lipped, spiral shell with time in the tropics - just as I do jerk chicken, mango salsa, and Key lime pie.

I first sampled conch (pronounced "conk") on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. It was bland and rubbery. I didn't understand all the fuss. But I later gave it another try in the Bahamas, where one can buy conch salad from any of a couple of dozen street vendors on a bustling strip along the harbor in downtown Nassau. My fellow travelers knew which one served the freshest, best-tasting salad, and they led me and the other neophytes in our group to him. It was altogether different - tender, tangy, and packed with flavor.

During a more recent winter escape to the Turks and Caicos Islands, I tasted fresh conch in several guises - as chowder, fritters, steak, and more. My favorite incarnation was a simple salad or seviche of fresh conch, tomatoes, green pepper, onion, and Scotch bonnet peppers all marinated in fresh lime juice and salt. Chris Waters, chef at the Ocean Club Resort's Seaside Cafe, served this dish to a group of American tourists out for a lunchtime sail. It vanished almost as fast as did the dolphin swimming alongside our boat after coming up for air.

The secret to succulent conch is in tenderizing it with a meat mallet before it's cooked or marinated. Conch is most tender when young - ideally at about age 2 and long before reaching maturity at about 20 to 25 years old.

These are just some of the conch facts shared by Porsche, a tour guide at the Caicos Conch Farm on Providenciales Island, the capital of Turks and Caicos. There, 500,000 eggs from the Caribbean queen conch (Strombus gigas in Latin) are hatched each spring.

The idea for a conch farm came from marine scientist Chuck Heese, who in 1974 sought refuge from a storm on Turks and Caicos. Mr. Heese beached his sloop and stayed, eventually pioneering the technology of farming conch to help preserve the species. He founded the Caicos Conch Farm in 1984 as an alternative to overfishing of both conch meat and shells in the Caribbean and off the Florida coast. Turns out he was onto something: The problem became so severe that by 1992, conch was endangered.

Man isn't its only predator. Moray eel, spiny lobster, octopus, porcupine fish, and stingray also prey on conch, only 25 percent of which reach adulthood. Conch feed on algae and other plant life and are at the bottom of the Caribbean food chain.

Those magnificent shells, which, as lore has it, provide a listen to the ocean when put up to one's ear, grow from the day the eggs are hatched. They continue growing, to accommodate the conch's enlarging body, for three to four years.

The conch served in restaurants on Turks and Caicos is raised in ponds at the Caicos Conch Farm - but its distribution doesn't stop there. Florida's Sun Rays Seafood sells the farm's conch to upscale restaurants in the Sunshine State. And Heese, who remains president of the farm, hopes that someday farmed conch will be as common on US restaurant menus as is calamari.

So there's hope for those of us who have cultivated a liking for conch - beyond the allure of its shell - and can't travel to the tropics anytime soon. But until Heese gets his way and you can get "conched out," as they say, at your neighborhood bistro, try substituting lobster in recipes such as this sensational salad. It's not conch, but it's not too shabby a second, either.

Conch Salad

3 pounds farm-raised conch, skinned and diced (or substitute cooked diced lobster, cooked diced squid, or cooked diced cod)
2 hot habanero peppers, finely chopped (also called Scotch Bonnet peppers)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 green bell peppers, finely chopped
2 firm, ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
Salt to taste

Tenderize the conch by pounding it with a meat mallet. Then fill two large bowls with salt water - either from the ocean or tap water with 1/2 cup of salt added to it. Wash conch thoroughly in first bowl. Dice finely and put into second bowl to soak for about 3 minutes; drain. (If using a conch substitute, skip these steps.) Combine all ingredients, allow mixture to marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour in refrigerator. Drain before serving.

Serves 8 to 10.

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