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They're heaven sent

Cooking | THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Avocados are a true culinary blessing, and right now, they're everywhere.

August 20, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The avocado has the distinction of being one foodstuff that can cause actual structural damage. Artichokes may look threatening, but they can do no worse than a pinprick. An eggplant may look like a bowling ball, but it's all water.

Avocados, on the other hand, are serious weapons. If you don't believe me, you should have been at my house this summer when it seemed that every morning around 3:15, another one would fall from my tree onto the roof. It sounded like a bomb going off.

At first I'd jump out of bed and run to the kitchen, expecting to see some kind of hole in the ceiling. Now, I just roll over and fall back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that for at least one more day, we'll eat well.

Because there is a bright side to all of this avocado bombing: The next morning I can stroll out in the backyard and pick up dinner (at least the fruit that hasn't cracked or that the possums haven't gotten to first).

After ripening for a few days, these giant avocados (they're Gwens, a granddaughter of industry standard Hass, and they're running about a pound apiece), have wound up in salads, spreads, soups and sandwiches. I figure this summer I'm averaging an avocado a day. As a result I've had to get a little creative.

The first couple weeks of the season, I was satisfied with something I learned from Evan Kleiman many years ago: Roughly puree an avocado with a fork, tart it up with some lemon juice (can it be coincidental that the start of avocado season overlaps with the end of my Meyer lemon crop?), then season it with salt and pepper. Lots of pepper. Black pepper, coarsely ground.

Spread this on a split, toasted focaccia roll and you've got one of the simplest, most delicious summer dishes you can imagine.

It's but a short step from there to soup. Because avocados are so dense and so flavorful, you need only a blender and some chicken stock to make a quite voluptuous bisque. This is not exactly news. In Helen Evans Brown's "West Coast Cookbook," published in 1952, she lists half a dozen avocado soups, though none of them is quite like the recipe included here.

One lesson I've learned about making these bisques: A little sour dairy, such as yogurt, adds depth of flavor, but don't stir it in until just before you're ready to serve it. An enzyme in the avocado changes the taste of the milk if it sits for very long.

As with guacamole, I prefer my avocado soups rather plain (my favorite guac is still the one I learned back in the late '60s from New Mexico magazine: mashed avocado and garlic salt). But that doesn't mean you can't dress them up with garnishes. These can be as simple as snipped chives or a swirl of yogurt. Or they can be a little more complicated. Kernels cut from an ear of grilled corn are beautiful -- pale gold against the light green. And the goat cheese-chive quenelles, though simple to make, are impressively high-fashion.

Given the dressiness of that dish, this is probably the best time to address the issue of serving wine with avocados. The conventional wisdom seems to be: "Don't." There is truth to that. I tried these avocado dishes with a range of white wines including Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc and at best achieved a tense standoff. The one exception was Gewurztraminer, in particular the Firestone Vineyards 2002 Santa Ynez Valley. It was simply spectacular with the avocado bisque.

Spreads and soups are best made with avocados that are fairly soft. Use the ones that are firmer for cutting up into salads or serving on sandwiches; the soft ones will crush and smear and, in general, misbehave in an ugly way.

I may be the last person on Earth to have realized this, but here's a neat trick I picked up watching the guys at my local taco stand. Rather than pitting the avocado, trying to neatly scoop the meat out in one piece and then slicing it -- the way I had been doing it -- they slice the pitted avocado and then peel back the strips of skin from the individual slices. The slices don't break up that way.

That avocados are able to survive their fall from grace, even onto a hard roof and then the hard ground, and still be edible is a tribute to a trick of nature. They're falling not because they're ripe but because they're too heavy for their stems. Avocados are one of the few fruits that absolutely will not ripen on the tree. Scientists who study avocados are still not sure exactly what the mechanism is that tells the fruit to begin ripening, but they do know that it is only triggered after the avocado has been picked.

This is one of the reasons avocados are always so expensive. Unlike most fruit, which has to be picked and shipped to market within a several-day window, a mature avocado can hang on the tree for months, waiting for the right price. Is it any wonder that so many avocado orchards seem to be owned by retired stockbrokers and CEOs?

A careful ripening

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