Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Avocados

We eat a lot of avocados in my family. Avocados on sandwiches, avocados on toast, guacamole, you name it. Fortunately for me, I live in a neighborhood with a large Central American population and several excellent Mexican markets, always with perfectly ripe avocados on hand. For me, this is a boon because often the avocado inspiration hits me spontaneously, and who can stand to wait around for a couple of days for a rock-hard avocado to ripen? Avocados must be eaten now.

A Brief History

Avocados are thought to be native to south-central Mexico. According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, they have been cultivated for over 7,000 years. The Aztecs enjoyed the fruit – indeed, guacamole is an Aztec invention. Davidson goes on to note that one of the first Europeans to try avocado ate it with cheese (he thought it resembled a pear), and the first mention of the fruit in English dates from 1672, in Jamaica. Avocadoes were first planted in the US in the mid-nineteenth century – in Florida in 1833 and in California in 1856.

Factual Nibbles

  • The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink notes that the word avocado comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) ahuacatl, which means “testicle.” (Giggle.) A less common name for the fruit is “alligator pear.”
  • Fun with avocado varieties’ names: There are hundreds of varieties, including Bacon, Beebe, Dickey, Esther, Hazard, Pinkerton, Sir Prize (get it?) and Walter Hole.
  • Guacamole is traditionally made in a molcajete, a Mexican mortar-and-pestle made from volcanic rock. Molcajetes usually have to be seasoned by grinding rice in them, and sometimes whole spices like cumin. 
  • Gourmet magazine tells us that California rolls – those ubiquitous sushi staples made with avocado and crab stick – first appeared in the late 1960s in LA. The chef was trying to recreate the fatty taste of tuna belly, and chose to use avocado for texture and crab for flavor. With avocados so plentiful in California, an iconic dish was born.
  • A California postman named Rudolph Hass accidentally developed the eponymously named (and now ubiquitous) Haas avocado. Mr. Haas patented the avocado in 1935. 
  • Rumors of the avocado’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities have followed it for centuries, but apparently, in the 1920s, a clever ad agency employed reverse psychology with a campaign denying the supposed effects to sell more avocados.

Cultivation

Avocadoes are the fruit of the Persea americana tree, in the laurel family. Avocadoes have some interesting relatives, including bay laurel, cinnamon, cassia, camphor and sassafras (all of which are also trees or shrubs). Most avocado varieties require warm, humid conditions to grow, but some cultivars from Central America are resistant to light frost. Avocadoes are generally commercially propagated through grafting, but you can easily grow your own avocado tree from the pit. According to this guide to growing avocadoes, an avocado seedling may not produce fruit for 15 years, after which the tree can be productive for over 40 years. Avocadoes are classified into three different “races:” Mexican, Guatemalan and Caribbean. Many of our common varieties (like the Haas and the Fuerte) are hybrids of several avocado races. Mexican food expert Rick Bayless notes that the creamy Haas variety is a Mexican hybrid, the larger Fuerte a Guatemalan, while Caribbean avocadoes tend to have less oil content and a fruitier flavor than either Mexican or Guatemalan types.

California, Florida and Hawaii grow the most avocadoes in the US. The Haas and Fuerte varieties of the fruit are the most popular in the US, with the Haas accounting for 95 percent of all of the avocadoes grown in California. Globally, Mexico leads the way in avocado production, followed by Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, the US and Columbia.

Seasonality

In much of the US, the Haas variety is what shows up in the supermarket; these avocadoes are available year-round. Other common varieties of avocado are generally in season from the end of the summer through mid-fall (depending on the type). Here is a great guide from Food Republic to some of the more common avocadoes and when they are in season.

Environmental Impact

Avocados rank at number 51 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means the pesticide residue on the fruit is fairly low. (And because the skin is not eaten, your risk of pesticide exposure is even lower.) However, avocado root rot is a serious disease in avocado trees, and fungicides are sometimes used as part of the control of the disease. Organic and fair trade (for avocados grown outside of the US) are available, but – and this is news to nobody who’s bought one, ever – are considerably more expensive than their conventional counterparts. (*Check out our RFRN rule of thumb, below, for more information.)

Avocado trees require quite a bit of water – each piece of fruit represents 60 gallons that went toward its growth – and that's obviously a problem in a state like California where drought has been persistent. This year’s California drought has driven up prices of California avocados (in part because water itself is so expensive) and some avocado farmers are even throwing in the towel and switching to less water-intensive crops like grapes

Speaking of water usage, Ellis O'Neill over at Civil Eats recently reported that avocado production may be consuming more than its fair share of water in certain areas in Chile. (Chile is a major exporter of the fruit to the US in the California off-season.) Tom Philpot expands upon all of this in his recent Mother Jones article on avocado production and water, with some great graphics on water use by fruit type and by avocado-growing country. 

Characteristics

Avocadoes vary considerably in size, shape and color depending on the variety. Its skin may be smooth or bumpy, bright green or black, and they can be pear-shaped, egg-shaped or spherical. (The common Haas variety has bumpy skin, is shaped like a pear and turns black when ripe.) Most varieties have golden-yellow-green flesh with a large, brown pit. Avocados have a mild, fruity flavor and a creamy, dense texture (depending on the varietal; some will be more oily and some more watery).

An avocado is ripe when it yields to gentle pressure when squeezed. In some varieties, like the popular Haas, the fruit’s skin will turn from green to black when ripe. The California Avocado Board has a nice little guide to how to tell when an avocado is ripe, by variety.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Avocadoes are nutritional powerhouses: the fruit is loaded with healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber, including Vitamins C and K, B vitamins and potassium. They are high in fatty acids (omegas -6 and -3), which are important in brain function, metabolism, and bone, skin and hair growth. The fats in avocadoes may also help promote heart health. Interestingly, people with latex allergies are sometimes allergic to avocadoes as well, due to cross-reactivity. Assuming you’re not allergic, the fruit is also good for your skin – this avocado face mask looks dreamy.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Most of us in the US automatically think of guacamole when we think of avocadoes. No doubt that guacamole is one of the world’s most perfect foods, but the fruit is incredible in other savory dishes and in desserts, too. Avocado pairs very well with strong flavors like citrus, alliums (think onions and garlic), chiles, chocolate (yes!), coconut, cilantro and tropical fruits (think mangoes). Avocadoes are primarily eaten raw, but I’ve been seeing cooked avocado dishes pop up with more frequency, like avocado fries and grilled avocado. (Note: some avocado varieties don’t do well cooked, as they get bitter; Haas is a good choice if you plan to apply a little heat.) Avocado oil has a fairly high smoke point and is pretty tasty drizzled on veggies and in vinaigrettes.

But back to avocadoes in desserts. Bear with me here: it might sound a little weird, but I have lately been in love with avocadoes and chocolate together. As in this vegan chocolate mousse made with avocado, these avocado fudge pops that my 4 year old ate all summer and the avocado chocolate shake below. And really, it’s not so weird to use avocadoes in dessert – in many parts of the world, the practice is de rigueur. In many Southeast Asian countries, you’ll find “milkshakes” of various stripes made with avocado. Check out these Indonesian coffee-avocado milkshakes or these Vietnamese avocado shakes made with sweetened condensed milk. You can also make delicious, creamy avocado ice cream with and without dairy.

Because the fruit is high in fat, it makes a nice substitution for mayo in sandwiches. Lately there has been a (annoying?) craze for avocado toast, which is literally just ripe avocado spread on toasted bread. Good, yes. Craze worthy? Not sure. But here’s a basic recipe for avocado toast that you can jazz up in all sorts of ways – a squirt of siracha, sliced radishes, chopped tomatoes, hard boiled egg, sesame seeds…you name it.

And then there is guacamole, that most wonderful of dips, perfect paired with crispy corn chips, slightly-less-perfect-but-still-delicious with raw veggies. The modern variations on guacamole are endless, but the dip originated with the Aztecs and has been around since at least the 15th century (and probably before). You are eating history when you eat guacamole. Joking aside, we can’t talk about avocadoes without talking about Mexican and Central American cuisine, where they are used liberally in sauces, dips and garnishes. Both avocado pits and dried leaves are also used in Mexican cuisine – especially in moles. The dried leaves are usually toasted and pulverized, and the pit grated.

Pro Tips

Prepping the fruit takes just a teeny bit of work: this is my favorite way to pit an avocado. However, my pretend boyfriend Jamie Oliver says that pitting avocado that way is the leading cause of knife wounds across palm, so he demonstrates an alternative. Once pitted, you can peel the skin like you would an orange or scoop it out with a spoon like Jamie does, then slice and dice the flesh any way you like. Just make sure you have a little lemon or lime juice on hand: avocado flesh turns an unappetizing gray-brown almost immediately after exposure to the air. Sprinkling a little acid (like citrus juice) on the flesh keeps the flesh nice and green.

Storage

Store unripened avocadoes on the counter until they ripen, then stick in the fridge, where they will keep for up to a week. Do not store unripe avocadoes in the fridge – they will never soften. Ripen too hard avocadoes by placing them in a paper bag with a ripe banana; ripe bananas emit ethylene gas that causes some fruit (avocadoes included) to ripen quickly.

Recipe

Avocado, Banana and Chocolate “Milkshakes”

Craving a little something sweet but trying to keep it healthy? Whip up a batch of these milk-less milkshakes! (I keep frozen bananas on hand at all times, just in case smoothie inspiration strikes me.) You can vary these shakes in all sorts of ways – add chocolate chips, peanut butter, a pinch of cinnamon or cardamom, frozen mango, a dash of coconut or almond milk, chia seeds, ground flax – you name it. For smoothies that blend a bit easier, add the liquid ingredients first, then the chunkier stuff. If you add less liquid (about half the amount of coconut water) this recipe makes a delicious, smooth vegan pudding.

Ingredients:
23 cup coconut water
12 large ripe avocado, pitted, peeled and diced
1 banana, frozen and cut into chunks
3 tablespoons organic cocoa powder
2 tablespoons honey

Method:
Add all ingredients to a blender; blend until smooth. Serves 2.


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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