Seasons by the Sea: All Hail the Avocado!
It’s a berry! It’s a pear! It’s superfood! We are talking about the Persea americana, member of the flowering plant family Lauraceae: the avocado. Its name comes from the Aztec word “ahuacatl,” which means testicle. Oh, dear.
The avocado really is a berry, and of all fruits, it has the highest amount of protein and oil, as much as 30 percent of the latter, and therefore is an excellent source of energy. Archeological remains show that this fruit has been cultivated for over 7,000 years.
All avocados are descended from three types: Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian. The Mexican is a plum-sized fruit, smooth and purple or black-skinned, with leaves that smell like anise. The Guatemalan avocado is larger, with rough green, purple, or black skin. The West Indian variety is the biggest, with smooth, light green skin. There are now over 500 varieties in different shapes, colors, and sizes grown around the world. Haas, probably the one we are most familiar with, is the most widely grown in California.
The first mention (in English, that is) of an avocado was by the royal physician W. Hughes in 1672. He tasted one in Jamaica and proclaimed it to be “one of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the island. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body.” Its popularity was slow to spread, however. In Europe it remained a tropical curiosity, and commercial cultivation didn’t begin in California until the 1870s, and around 1900 in Florida.
The flavor of avocados has been described as buttery, rich, and nutty. It is very subtle, so it benefits greatly from the addition of salt and/or acid.
Now that we’ve all decided that avocados are super, super healthy, avocado toast has become ubiquitous. Personally, I have been eating a version of it since the ’70s when Deborah Madison (of the Greens restaurant and cookbook) mentioned her favorite snack: toasted sourdough bread with avocados smashed on top, sprinkled with fresh lime juice, salt, and pepper. The great thing about avocado toast is that it takes one minute to make. Or you can get all fancy with miso-tahini-black sesame gomashio, feta and mint, a riff on Mexican street corn, and so on.
Some (namely Australians) believe that avocado toast originated in Australia. They have been eating it for breakfast for decades. If I had to choose between Vegemite or avocado, I think I’d go for the avocado, too. This trendy, easy to eat snack/meal has exploded among millennials, who willingly pay up to $12 for this Instagrammable slice to go with their cold-brewed whatever beverage. One advantage of avocado toast is it obviously has to be made fresh to order. Otherwise it would be brown mush. It doesn’t drip; it doesn’t squirt.
Why does the flesh of avocados turn brown so quickly? The flesh is made up of mostly fatty acids, like oleic and linoleic, and contains very little sugar or starch. When cut open and exposed to oxygen, the phenolic compounds and an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase convert into quinones, which produce polymers that cause browning.
Avocados ripen after picking. Once they’ve ripened, it is okay to store them in the refrigerator for a few days, which will halt further ripening. And how do you keep your guacamole or other avocado recipes from turning brown? The old wive’s tale of leaving the pit immersed in the guacamole does not help. Lemon or lime juice helps, as does covering the exposed surface directly with plastic wrap.
What are some other recipes utilizing avocados besides the ubiquitous, possibly Australian avo toast? You can make all manner of dips and spreads, salads, soups, even ice cream. They are delicious diced and folded into a Mexican coctel de camarones, basically a shrimp ceviche with onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, lime juice, and cilantro. Some avocado soup recipes are hot, some cold. I even found a recipe for deep-fried avocado bites. It involved a lot of labor to make an already fatty ingredient even fattier and unhealthy. Some sources also warn against cooking avocado, as this can make it bitter. But I have had it briefly seared like foie gras and it was delicious.
And what about the other avocado, that big, bright green, shiny one that we often pass over for the buttery rich Hass variety? This is the Hall or Choquette, sometimes called Florida or Dominican. It is much lower in fat and is not a good substitute for making guacamole, but it can be useful in a sandwich or on burgers.
A couple of years ago I was in Texas and tried a guacamole prepared tableside to order. No matter what we requested regarding heat level, the waiter added fresh orange juice to every batch. It was a great addition, another level of citrus, and I have been using that trick ever since. My basic ingredients for guacamole are avocado (duh), onions, plenty of fresh lime juice, fresh chopped jalapeños and cilantro, a whisper of garlic, a touch of orange juice, salt, and pepper. I never add diced tomatoes; they seem to deliquesce too fast.
If you have ever had the good fortune to travel to countries where avocados are grown, you no doubt tried far more varieties than those available in America. (The best I have ever tried were in El Salvador.) Today, 9 out of 10 avocados come from Mexico. In the ’90s, the U.S. grew more that 80 percent of what it consumed, now it grows less than 20 percent. Thanks, Nafta! Also, from the mid- ’90s to the present, the average consumption per person per year has grown from two pounds to seven. Thanks, Australia and millennials!
Whether you enjoy this alligator pear or “poor man’s butter” in its simplest form, sliced and salted with a dash of citrus, or turned into a velvety vegan ice cream, you can be assured that you are getting one of the most healthy and filling, vitamin-packed fruits on the planet.