Saturday, April 11, 2009

Advocate for the Avocado

Avocado,
What makes you think you’re so holy?
You’re gonna be guacamole before too long.
--Weird Al Yankovic

Native to Central and South America, there are more than 500 varieties of avocados that grow in subtropical areas around the world. Their size varies from that of a small pear to a large coconut. The skin can be smooth or rough, and range in color when ripe from yellowish green to purplish black. The color of the flesh varies from buttery yellow to neon green. Like bananas, avocados are climacteric fruit, which means they matures on the tree but ripen after they are picked.

They got their name from the Spanish explorers who couldn't pronounce the Aztec word “ahuacatl” (which meant “testicle” due to the fruit’s shape). The Spanish renamed them “aguacate”, from which the word guacamole was derived.

The most common variety available in the U.S. is the Hass avocado and it’s the only species that is grown year-round. It has a pebbley, dark green skin that blackens as it matures. All Hass avocados descend from a single tree planted by California mail carrier Rudolph Hass in 1935. The patented tree survived until 2002.

I much prefer Hass avocado not just for their flavor and color but because you can easily tell when they’re ripe. Too often I’ve purchased smooth-skin varieties that felt ripe but when cut open were discolored and rotten.
My first encounter with the then exotic fruit was in the 1950s. My grandmother would bring them back from Florida and always referred to them as “avocado pears.” Seemingly, there was only one form of preparation: sliced on top of a lettuce leaf and doused with Kraft Catalina dressing. I didn’t like them and never gave them a second thought until after I graduated from college.

I was living in Chicago and there were many wonderful Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood, a cuisine was just learning to appreciate. It was inevitable that guacamole would end up on my plate and low and behold it did, I tasted it and it was good. I soon learned to like avocados in other ways.

In California, they like to add a little mayo to guacamole and it makes a great topping for burgers. Once in a North African restaurant I had something that that looked a lot like guacamole but was flavored with ground almonds and rose water. The most unusual preparation I’ve encountered (and like) is guacamole ice cream—it has a sublime texture and beautiful color. (Here is Alton Brown’s recipe if you want to give it a try.) I love avocados in Cobb and seafood salads. I generally don’t like them cooked though I once had a soufflé in Paris flavored with avocado and Chartreuse that was delicious.

After all is said and done, guacamole—the dip—remains the most popular use for avocados. Supposedly, over 53 million pounds of guacamole are eaten every Super Bowl Sunday, enough to cover the playing football field 20 feet deep. Personally, I like my guacamole more chopped than pureed and I’ve included a favorite recipe at the end. I don’t ever like guacamole or anything else made from avocados that aren’t ripe. Finally, one of the great kitchen myths of all time is that putting the avocado pit in the guacamole will prevent it from turning dark. Store guacamole packed (no air pockets) in a covered, air tight container just large enough to hold its contents. Second best is to lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the guacamole. Either way, keep refrigerated until serving.

Here is my list of Best of Madison avocados:

Best Place to Buy Ripe Avocados. It seems like when you need a ripe avocado you can never find one. I’ve had my best luck at the Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market.

Best Restaurant Guacamole. I probably like the guac at La Mestiza best because it tastes most like mine.

Best Store-Bought Guacamole. At one time, the stuff you bought was insipid but a lot of guacamole packed in plastic pouches nowadays, though not as good as homemade, isn’t half bad. I think Trader Joe's Avocado’s Number brand is the best. It also comes in a variety flavored with salsa verde.

Best Use of Avocado on a Sandwich. Marigold Kitchen makes a different and unusually tasty fish sandwich with grilled tilapia, lettuce, tomato, red onion and avocado; finished off with a little queso fresco and a drizzle of chipotle lime dressing.

Best Guac Burger. The Cabana Room at Samba Brazilian Steak House makes a traditional guacamole burger that is also topped with cheddar and salsa. Their Cabana burger comes topped with avocado slices.

Best Salad with Avocados. This beautiful and complex salad at Sardine composed of arugula, red grapefruit and avocado comes with a citrus vinaigrette and garnish of spiced pumpkin seeds.
Best Avocado Appetizer (Not Guacamole). Not that common in this neck of the woods, Causa Limena is one of Peru’s best known dishes and available at Inka Heritage. Mashed potatoes flavored with hot yellow spicy yellow peppers and lime juice are layered with avocado and your choice of shredded chicken or shrimp and served with salsa golf (mayonnaise and ketchup).

Best Exotic Use of Avocado. The mango duck roll at Restaurant Muramoto was on the menu the first time I ate there back when it had just opened on King Street. It’s still featured at their new location and for good reason. Shinji’s sushi creation is a roll of duck, mango and avocado served with a soy sauce reduction.

Guacamole

Half a small onion, peeled
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 fully ripe Haas avocado, cut in half and seeded
Wedge of fresh lime
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh salsa (optional)

Using a food processor. Cut the onion half in 2 pieces and place in the work bowl. Coarsely chop the onion by turning the food processor on and off. With the motor running, drop the garlic through the feed tube and process until chopped. Turn off the food processor. Without scraping down the sides of the bowl, add the flesh from the avocado. (Be sure to scrape close to the skin, including the dark green outside of the fruit to give the guacamole a nice color). Add the juice from the lime, salt and the salsa, if used.

Finely chop the guacamole by turning the food processor on and off. Don't over process; the guacamole should not be homogenized. Scrape the guacamole into a serving bowl and serve immediately.

Using a blender or making by hand. Roughly purée the avocado in the blender or mash with a fork. Scrape out into a serving dish. Finely chop by hand the onion, garlic, tomato and pepper. Stir the chopped vegetables into the avocado along with the lime juice, salt and salsa.

Makes about 1½ cups.

Variation: Guacamole for Hamburgers and Sandwiches. Substitute 1 tablespoon mayonnaise for the salsa and process until completely smooth

1 comment:

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