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Avocados are a demanding lot. They insist on being picked from their trees -- hand-picked in most cases -- before they will even consider beginning the ripening process. They shirk excessive cold and, unlike many other more agreeable fruits and vegetables, will not abide refrigeration until they are completely ripe. Even then, their conditions are strict: not too cold nor for very long, thank you. Put into a plastic bag, they suddenly stop ripening alltogether and, when released from this oxygenless environment, they simply rot. For the valiant avocado lover who coddles an avocado through these initial stages, there is the final insult. Once the peeled avocado enters the light of day, it begins to darken into an unappetizing dull gray.
"Why do avocados do these things to us? What can they be thinking," we ask, exasperated at tossing out yet another muddy, half-eaten bowl of guacamole. The answer, strangely enough, seems to be love: avocados simply love to be loved. Theirs is not to sit around in graceful green slices or mashed up as dips or soups. Theirs is to be eaten and enjoyed immediately, as soon as they're ready: not a moment before, nor for many moments after.
"Eat me," they command as they slip out of their skins, "or else."
The creamy texture and nutty flavor of the avocado have lured many of us into helpless compliance with its terms. For years, we have buried avocado pits in our guacamole, in the undemonstrable but hopeful belief that the pit would magically keep everything bright and green indefinitely, contrary to the fruit's obvious wishes. The pit was the avocado's Achilles' heel, or so many people hoped. In fact, as Harold McGee reports in his charming debunker, The Curious Cook, the pit does very little. After numerous pitburying experiments, McGee discovered that only the guacamole directly beneath the pit, where it was not exposed to the air, was saved from discoloration. Much more effective, he found, is oxygen-impermeable plastic wrap pressed tightly against the guacamole. When sliced or cut-up, avocados are mixed with acidic foods, like tomatoes or citrus fruits, browning is also somewhat diminished. But the best remedy is to consume the avocado preparation as soon as it's ready.
There are quite a few ways to get it ready, from fluffing it into avocado butters to stuffing avocado halves with baby shrimp or chicken salad. There are mousses, soups, both cold and hot, and all sorts of sauces and spreads. Avocado ice cream, a concoction that Somerset Maugham claimed to have created, is interesting for its literary associations, though perhaps for little else.
Brazilians treat avocado as the fruit that it technically is and make a dessert of its mashed flesh mixed with sugar. Even the leaves of the fruit are used in some Latin countries, where tortilla fillings are spiked with a sprinkling of toasted crushed avocado leaves, said to add a flavor like anise.
Guacamole has any number of variations, which is not surprising, given that it was first eaten by the Aztecs long before the arrival of the Spanish. In fact, the avocado is a New World fruit -- its name comes from the Nahuatl language ahuacatl ("testicle")--that has been cultivated for 7,000 years.
A relative of a subtropical tree in the laurel family, the avocado has more than one hundred varieties. They range in size from hefty 5-pounders down to the dimensions of a chicken egg. The two varieties most commonly available are the rough-skinned Haas, a dark green-to-black type of Guatemalan origin, and the lighter green, smooth-skinned Fuerte, a Guatemalan-Mexican hybrid. Of the 300 million pounds annually marketed in this country, domestic production is centered in California, which provides 80 percent, and Florida, which makes up the other 20.
Also known as alligator pears, avocados have been called "poor man's butter" because of their exceptionally high fat content, which can reach 20 percent. Unlike butter, however, they have no cholesterol.
Consumer and Cooking Guide
Haas and Fuerte are the most common varieties of California-grown avocados. They are richer in flavor than the Bacon, Zutano, Floridian Booth 7, and Lula varieties. Select avocados that yield to gentle pressure, with unspotted and undented skins.
Year-round; peak--April through August
To ripen a hard avocado, store it in a loosely closed paper bag at room temperature. Refrigerate cut avocados, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.
Cilantro, citrus juices, cumin, oregano
1 large avocado = 1 cup, mashed
Good source of vitamins A, C, and E
360 calories per avocado
Cooking and Handling Tips
If cooking with avocado, add it at the last minute. Extensive cooking destroys the flavor and often turns avocados bitter. Best eaten uncooked.
2 large avocados
1 2 cups plain yogurt
2 cup fresh orange juice
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Salt and pepper
Chopped fresh chives
Peel and seed the avocados. Cut them into chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor with 1 cup yogurt, juice, stock, cayenne, cumin, and oregano. Process until smooth. Chill; season with salt and pepper just before serving. Serve with a dollop of the remaining yogurt and a sprinkling of chives.
Best Basic Guacamole
makes about 2 cups
2 large avocados
1 small tomato, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, deveined, and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice
Salt and Pepper
Split the avocados in half, remove the seeds, and place the flesh in a medium bowl. Mash it coarsely with the back of a spoon or fork. (It should not be smooth.) Stir in the remaining ingredients until well mixed. Serve as a topping, spread, dip, or with any recipe that calls for guacamole.
Avocado and Chicken Soup
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1/2 medium red onion, diced
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded, deveined, and diced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 whole skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
1 large avocado, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
In a saucepan, heat the butter. Cook the onion, jalapeno, and bell pepper until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in chicken and cook for another 3 minutes, or until the chicken turns white. Add the stock; bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the avocado and serve.
Guacamole and Pinto Bean Torte
serves 10 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons oil or lard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 16-ounce can pinto beans, drained
Salt and pepper
2 cups Best Basic Guacamole (see recipe above)
2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
In a skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic and onion and cook until soft. Stir in the beans, salt, and pepper and with a potato masher or heavy-duty fork, mash the beans as they cook. Cook for about 5 minutes and let cool.
Spread the bean mixture in a 10-inch ceramic pie or quiche plate. Top with the guacamole. Combine the sour cream, yogurt, and lime juice. Spread this mixture over the guacamole. Starting from the outer edge, make concentric circles of chopped tomato, cheese, and cilantro. Serve with warm tortillas.
Avocado Shrimp Mousse
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
3 medium avocados, mashed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried cumin
2 cups sour cream or plain yogurt
3 cup fresh cilantro leaves
6 ounces cooked bay shrimp
1 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
Crackers or tortilla wedges
Grease a fluted 10-inch quiche pan.
In a small saucepan, sprinkle the gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water. Let stand for 5 minutes to soften. Cook over medium heat just until the water is boiling and the gelatin has dissolved. In a food processor, combine the avocado, lemon juice, herbs and spices, sour cream, cilantro, and gelatin. Process until smooth. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 6 hours. To unmold, run the tip of a sharp knife around the edges of the pan and invert the pan on a flat platter. Arrange the shrimp and black olives in concentric circles on top. Serve with crackers or tortilla wedges.