I didn’t have my first avocado until I was about 12. I think it was the fruit and veg supplier to my mother’s restaurant who gave her a couple of samples to bring home. I liked their mysterious black skin; I loved their nickname, alligator pear; and I was pretty excited about any new fruit in my life until I realized that avocados weren’t exactly oozing sweetness. The Greatest Show On Earth was my all-time favorite movie back then (today, I have no idea why) so, after my mother told me that Hollywood movie stars like Cornel Wilde ate avocados, I finished my alligator pear.
I have only two other recollections of avocados early in my life. The first is of the seeds stabbed with toothpicks and mounted on a glass of water in the kitchen window; I liked the little plant it produced much more than the fruit. My second memory of the word avocado is the color of the Frigidaire that wouldn’t die, decades after avocado green (and harvest gold) appliances had disappeared from Sears showrooms.
I was in my late twenties before I thought much about avocados again. I was living in Toronto and there was a Mexican restaurant that stayed open later than the bars. They specialized in an after hours drink known as Mexican tea, draft beer presented in a teapot at the table that was then poured into teacups. It was there that I discovered guacamole for the first time and also discovered that when it was placed on a table I tended to not stop eating it until the bowl was empty.
In Mexico, avocados are called aguacates which I once thought had something to do with water. It doesn’t. The word aguacates and the word avocado come from the Aztec language Nahuatl and, because of an avocado’s shape, they refer to a certain portion of the male anatomy or what Don Day’s Wife calls “the two friends that hang around with Willy”. This becomes even more confusing when you learn French and discover that avocat is the word for both an avocado and a lawyer…no, I better not go further with that comparison.
The fruit is believed to have originated in the state of Puebla in Mexico and seeds were found in a cave in Coxcatlan in that state that date to about 10,000 BC. The native variety is much smaller than the fruit we’re familiar with and the flesh is dominated by a large seed. Mexico remains as the number one producer of the most popular cultivar, the Hass variety, with over one million tons produced annually.
One of the strangest things about the avocado is that it is climacteric, a fancy-dan word meaning that it will fully ripen when it is off the tree (bananas and apples are two other fruits I know of that are climacteric). You can actually leave an avocado on the tree for months, choosing when to pick it and let it ripen.
In Mexico, we are usually able to buy avocados at the exact ripeness for eating today or three days from now or for a week from now. All I do when I’m at the Ignacio Ramirez market is tell the fruit and veg seller the day I plan to eat them; if they’re good at their job, they’ll get it exactly right. Outside of Mexico, that borders on the impossible.
Supermarkets almost always sell avocados rock hard so, like James Taylor, “you need timing, ticka ticka ticka timing”, planning meals a week or two in advance, a task that is far beyond my abilities. I will share one little trick if you need to speed the ripening. Most people know to put the avocados in a brown paper bag but not many people know that if you then place it in the oven close to the oven light with only the oven light on, you can speed it up even more. Adding an apple or banana to the bag will also accelerate ripening as these fruits release ethylene that speeds up the process.
When it comes to eating avocados, you cannot go without mentioning guacamole. On Super Bowl Sunday, more than eight million pounds are consumed. On Cinco de Mayo, that number grows to 14 million.
When you live in San Miguel de Allende, escaping guacamole is even more of a task. There’s hardly ever a cocktail party to which it’s not invited. Some Mexican restaurants place it on the table as a free appetizer. And everyone’s guacamole is praised as, absolutely, the very best guacamole to ever grace a table or a tongue. So I could only share Don Day’s Wife’s recipe as potentially the world’s second best which would be dangerous to my future existence. Instead, I’ll share with you the recipe of the person who, deservedly, is more famous than anyone anywhere for Mexican food, chef Rick Bayless. I will say that the most important part of Rick’s recipe is the garlic which, unfortunately, is left out of many other recipes.
GUACAMOLE (recipe from season three of “Mexico – One Plate at a Time”)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled.
Hot fresh green chiles to taste (Don Day’s Wife would choose 2 jalapeños), stems and seeds removed.
3 ripe avocados, preferably the black-skinned Hass.
A couple of tablespoons chopped fresh Mexican herbs such as cilantro, pipisa or papalo (Don Day’s Wife would simply use cilantro because the others are too difficult to find, even in Mexico).
1 small white cebollito (or green onion if you’re not in Mexico) including the green tops, finely chopped.
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice.
A little crumbled Mexican fresh cheese (Cotija is preferred by Don Day’s Wife) for garnish.
A sliced radish or two for garnish.
Finely chop the garlic and green chiles, and scoop them into a bowl.
One at a time, run a knife down through each avocado, starting at the top, until you reach the pit; continue cutting around the pit until you reach the point you started.
Twist the two halves of the avocado apart (yes, Rick Bayless has mastered the technique that I can’t but read on and you’ll learn how Don Day does it). Remove the pit and discard. Scoop the flesh into the bowl with the chiles. Mash coarsely with the back of a spoon or an old-fashioned potato masher.
Add the herbs and onion, stir to combine, then taste. Season with salt (usually about a half teaspoon) and lime juice. Scoop into a serving dish and garnish with cheese and radishes.
Because guacamole is such a cliche in central Mexico, we have another favorite way to enjoy avocado in our home. It originates from our time in San Francisco and a restaurant in the West Portal neighborhood called Cafe for All Seasons. It is a relatively simple sandwich consisting of five of the world’s most complicated and complimentary flavors…bacon, shrimp, tomato, avocado and garlic aioli…served most appropriately on a crispy French baguette (from the bakery Panio if you’re in San Miguel). It is especially enjoyed on a morning after the night before.
The best avocado I ever ate was at Cafe Iberico, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Alas, Cafe Iberico is now serving Spanish tapas to the angels and the space is now occupied by the mostly empty La Bugambilia but that memory still lives on in my golden oldies file. The dish was simply called fried avocado on the menu and it disproved the fallacy that avocados cannot be improved by cooking. With its chipotle mustard vinaigrette and side of pickled onions it was one of the most delightful of all culinary experiences in this entire town.
A couple of years after Cafe Iberico went the way of so many good restaurants, another very good restaurant, Aguamiel, came to the rescue, serving a scrumptious half moon of deep fried avocado on a taco with spicy mayo and kimchee. Then, the next thing I knew, Aguamiel had packed up their knives and they were gone.
I had to use innovation to satisfy my cooked avocado craving. The first thing I did was one of those romantic things that only the most sensitive of men do. I went out and bought Don Day’s Wife a deep fryer for Christmas. Talk about a smile a mile wide…or perhaps I was practicing my headstand at the time.
To fry avocados at home, you simply peel, pit and slice an avocado or three. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say simply because Don Day was once taught the best way to cut and remove a seed from an avocado but never was able to master the technique. So I went to the California Avocado Commission to see if there was a better way because, as I’m sure you’re aware, any organization with the word commission in it always knows all. Sure enough, the commission were experts and even mentioned that my personal seed extraction method of striking the seed with a knife and twisting “requires some skill and is not recommended”.
So that, like me, you also know the most efficient way, I will paste in, the commission’s recommendation below.
How to Cut Avocados
Use this simple process when cutting avocados:
Start with a ripe avocado on a cutting board and cut it lengthwise around the seed. We recommend cutting into the avocado until the knife hits the seed, then rotating the avocado with one hand while holding the knife horizontally in the other hand.
Turn the avocado by a quarter, and cut it in half lengthwise again.
Rotate the avocado halves in your hands and separate the quarters.
Remove the seed by pulling it out gently with your fingertips.
Peel the fruit by sliding your thumb under the skin and peeling the skin back.
OK, back to those fried avocados. You then dip the quarters in beaten eggs and dredge (a word used in canals and cooking) them in panko crumbs (available at Supermercado Bonanza in San Miguel de Allende) and throw them in hot fat for a couple of minutes. If your spouse has never shown their deep devotion to you by gifting you with a plug-in deep fryer, you can simply use a dutch oven or deep frying pan with an inch or two of vegetable oil instead.
One chipotle pepper and a little adobo sauce from a La Costena can mixed with a half cup of mayo is a simple way to make a good dip.
As an old advertising guy, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite facts about avocados. Dating all the way back to the Aztecs, avocados have had a reputation for improving sexual prowess. Research determined that women (these were American women not Azteca women) were embarrassed to put the fruit into their shopping carts for fear of damaging their reputations. A public relations campaign was mounted by the growers to suggest that the avocado was, in fact, not an aphrodisiac and couples would not necessarily end up on top of the dining room table after consuming them. The result: There was little change with the buying habits of women but men suddenly started putting avocados into their carts in great quantity.
Have to run now. I can smell the fried avocados and Don Day’s Wife is calling me.