Avocado: Beyond Guacamole

As a name, alligator pear wouldn’t make it through the focus groups today. Nor would aguacate, which is what the Spanish called it when they couldn’t pronounce ahuacatl, Aztec for testicle. Thank God somebody came up with avocado. Beneath its leathery skin, the pear-shaped avocado has a buttery, sensuous fleshthat Americans most often mash for guacamole, the Mexican dip or topping. But other parts of the world use avocados more inventively. Chileans put them on hot dogs, Brazilians in ice cream. Now is a good time to experiment with avocados because they are at their peak.

“Avocado is healthy but (its) creamy texture and richness makes it seem like an indulgence.” notes Spanish-born chef Jose Andres, who operates Spanish, Mexican and Mediterranean restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area.

Indeed, that richness has kept many from eating more avocados. Yet, 60 percent of the fat in avocados (which contain about 200 calories for a half cup) is monounsaturated, the same kind of heart-healthy fat in olive oil that has had people raving since the great Food Pyramid was built. Add to that more potassium than a banana and the highest dietary fiber by weight of any fruit—yes, avocado is a fruit—and you have something that can almost make you feel virtuous.

Though avocado consumption has doubled in the past five years, unfamiliarity is still common. “Many people have a hard time identifying the fruit and knowing when it’s ripe. When an avocado is black, it’s ripe, but most people have been conditioned to think black fruit is bad,” says Chris Tully, a spokesperson for the Mexican Avocado Board.

There are three types or races of avocado but only two sold commercially: the smaller pebble-skinned Guatemalan avocado and the West Indian, which has a smooth, shiny green skin. The larger West Indian, which can weigh up to two pounds, is less aromatic and, because it has a lower fat content, less flavorful. Both types ripen off the tree and increase their fat content during ripening. Both have a creamy green flesh with yellowish highlights. However, the Guatemalan is by far the most widely consumed. The Hass variety of Guatemalan accounts for about 90 percent of the avocados produced and eaten in this country.

While the origins of the avocado go back over 7000 years ago to South-Central Mexico, the Hass began in 1920 when Rudolph Hass, a postman in Whittier, Calif., planted a seedling in his new orchard. Because the tree yielded well and the fruit had a richer, nuttier taste than other avocados, Hass took out a patent in 1935. It took about 40 years for the Hass to overtake the Fuerte, its predecessor as America’s most common avocado.

Among chefs, the Hass is the consensus choice. But which Hass: California, Mexico or Chile? While Julian Medina, formerly of Zocalo in New York, prefers the Mexican Hass, Tom Carl Tjerandsen of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association says, “In blind taste tests time after time there has been no difference. A Hass is a Hass is a Hass.”

Not always. The organic Mexican Hass I tasted when I initially wrote this story for the Wine Spectator was noticeably richer and more flavorful than a conventionally grown avocado from Chile. I also noticed that the avocados are in a more ripened state than in years past. “Shippers are doing a better job shipping fruit that is now almost ripe versus avocados that were like rocks before,” Tjerandsen says. “Now it only takes a day or two or three to ripen instead of a week.” Savvy avocado marketers are also selling staged ripening bags that contain six avocados: two immediately ready, two the next day and two the day after that.

A ripe avocado should be uniformly dark, almost black. If it yields slightly to thumb pressure, it’s best for slicing, cubing or cutting in half for stuffing (generally with seafood such as crab or shrimp salad). More yield to pressure means a riper fruit and a candidate for mashing or pureeing. (One avocado yields about one cup of mashed fruit.) A noticeably soft fruit is probably overripe and discolored. To facilitate ripening, put avocados in a paper bag—Medina and Andres wrap them individually in newspaper. To speed things up, add a banana, apple, pear or tomato, all of which give off ethylene gas that hastens ripening. Cutting or refrigerating stops the ripening process. Ripe avocados will hold under refrigeration for up to five days.

To prepare an avocado, cut it in half, lengthwise, until you reach the pit. Then twist the halves in opposite directions to separate them. Scoop the pit out with a spoon or give the pit a gentle whack with the blade of a chef’s knife, then twist the blade to remove the pit. Push the pit off the blade with a fork or paring knife. Remove the flesh from each half with a tablespoon.

Because avocados discolor easily, cut them just before putting a dish together or toss cut avocado in some acidic liquid. Lime juice is most often used, but any citrus juice will do. Andres likes to use Sherry vinegar. Mix cubed avocado with minced sweet onion, lemon juice and cilantro and drizzle over some barbecue sauce for those Chilean hot dogs. I also like cubes with ceviche, in tacos (with seafood, poultry or pork), in rolled futomaki sushi, or wrapped with smoked salmon for an easy hors d’oeuvre.

For his grilled avocado salad, Medina brushes firm avocado halves with oil, then grills them for a few minutes, cuts them up and tosses them with orange segments, jicama and watercress. “The crispness of the jicama contrasts with the softness of the avocado, and the bitterness of the watercress acts as a foil for the richness,” he says. (That richness also mitigates the heat from chile peppers, which are often used with avocados.) Medina also makes a snack of deep-fried avocado wedges (coated with panko bread crumbs) and served with a chipotle barbecue sauce. In addition to chile peppers and lime juice, cilantro and tomatoes are used in many avocado dishes.

While guacamole is as common as tortilla chips, it can still be jazzed up. I put toasted and freshly ground cumin in mine. You can also smear guacamole on pizza and top with homemade salsa and grated Jack cheese.

Because of its creaminess, mashed avocado is often spread on toast for breakfast in Mexico. I also like it on a bagel (with or without lox) in lieu of cream cheese. Andres says that the avocado’s lush texture works to enrich cold dressings and hot dishes. “I made a kind of risotto at home and added a puree of avocado at the end,” he says. “It worked just like butter.” Alligator butter, anyone?

AVOCADO SOUP

Though this soup can be eaten hot or cold, I prefer it cold accompanied by tortilla chips.

  • 2 ripe medium avocados
  • 2 cups low or nonfat chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon dry vermouth
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped chives or cilantro for garnish

1)Halve avocados and scoop out flesh into a blender or food processor. Add stock and blend until smooth. Put into a mixing bowl (or heavy bottom saucepan if serving hot) with remaining ingredients. Blend well.

2)If serving hot, heat gently to a simmer while stirring. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

3)If serving cold, chill several hours, then taste for seasoning. Sprinkle with chives or cilantro.

Serves 6.

Photos courtesy of California Avocado Commission, avocado.org.

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