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Avocado

If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one food, it would be the avocado. The rich, buttery-smooth flesh of an avocado is on a lot of people's lists as a delicious but fattening treat. It's true that avocados have a high oil content, but they are also packed with vitamins A, C, and E--primary vitamins in the antioxidant group that protect the cells in human tissue. A high protein content makes avocados a good meat substitute, and unlike animal fat, the fat is not saturated. The big surprise in avocados is how high they are in dietary fiber--they have one of the highest fiber contents of any fruit or vegetable.

Avocados grow abundantly in warm climates. Europeans discovered them when Cortez arrived on these shores in the sixteenth century, but avocados had been eaten for centuries by native Americans. Excavators have unearthed avocado pits in Peru that date to before AD 900.

Everyone knows that Mexican and southwestern cuisines include a lot of avocados, but the fruit--especially the Haas variety--has become extremely popular in the Far East. The French also love avocados, consuming an average of four pounds a year per person, while the average American consumes two pounds--that is, outside the state of California, where the average consumption is six pounds a year. In the U.S. the biggest consumption of avocados nationwide is on Superbowl Sunday.

When ripe, an avocado has pale yellow to gold flesh and a delicate, sweet, nutty flavor. Above the equator the fruit blooms between February and May, but it is harvested year round. Unlike most fruits, an avocado doesn't have to be picked at a certain peak time; it can remain on the tree quite a while. Like pears, avocados ripen only after they are picked, and the firm fruits ship well. Once a relatively expensive delicacy, avocados have steadily decreased in price as the fruit has become more widely available, and now they're quite reasonable.

Varieties

California avocados are generally Guatemalan varieties, and in my opinion they are the best. They include the famous Hass, the Fuerte, and the Reed, which are relatively small compared to Florida avocados and have a thick, pebbly skin. Sometimes called alligator pears because of their rough skin, these have a higher oil content than the larger Florida varieties and a richer, creamier taste.

The Hass is small to medium in size and oval in shape, with a very pebbled skin that goes from dark green to purplish black, a high oil content, and a buttery taste. The Hass strain was discovered by a postman named Randolph Hass, who patented it in 1935. It was resisted at first by consumers, but because of its distinctively nutty, rich taste, it's now the most popular variety in the U.S. and accounts for 80 percent of the California crop.

The Fuerte strain was developed by Henry Dalton a few miles east of Los Angeles, near what is now Azusa, in 1848. Trees set out near Santa Barbara in 1871 have thrived for more than a century. These are medium-sized, pear-shaped fruits with a skin that's somewhat pebbled but smoother than the Hass. The skin starts out green and fairly shiny, then becomes duller with darker spots as the avocado ripens. The Fuerte doesn't peel as easily as the Hass, and it needs to be thoroughly ripe when it's eaten. Because it stores so well, it's available eight months of the year.

The Reed is roundish and large. It looks more like a Florida avocado, although it has slight pebbling on the skin.

Florida avocados are generally Mexican varieties. Smooth-skinned and very clean looking, they can grow to be very large. They contain less oil and more water than the rough-skinned California varieties, and although they're generally much less expensive and have a good flavor, they're not as sweet and nutty-tasting. Florida varieties include Booth, Lula, and Taylor.

Mexican avocados that are imported are, in my opinion, better than the Mexican varieties grown in Florida. High in quality and the least expensive, Mexican avocados include the Bacon and Zutano, which are available twice a year--in early spring and again in early fall. Both are well suited to guacamole and salads.

Season

Because each variety has a different season, avocados are available year round.

California Varieties Florida and Mexican Varieties

Hass:

Booth, Lula, Taylor:

Available year round
April to November--height
End of June through February

Fuerte:

Zutano:

November to July October through May

Reed:

Bacon:

March to September November through July

Selecting

Choose unbruised, unscarred fruit with no wrinkles, and don't squeeze the fruit or you'll bruise it. Look at the stem end: if the avocado is ripe, the stem will pull right out. The best strategy is to buy avocados when they're still a bit green and firm and ripen them at home.

Storing

Leave firm avocados out on the counter for a few days to ripen. Early in the season avocados will take six to nine days to ripen. Early in the season avocados will take six to nine days to ripen. Late in the season they'll take only one to five days. That's because fruit left longer on the tree has matured to the point that it will ripen quickly after picking. To hasten the ripening process, put avocados in a paper bag or a drawer. Some people think they ripen best wrapped in foil.

Don't refrigerate avocados. They can turn to mush in as little as a day under refrigeration. Avocado flesh exposed to the air will darken very quickly. Some people think that leaving the pit in prevents discoloring, but the primary factor is keeping air away from the flesh--so wrap a cut avocado in plastic, refrigerate, and use it as soon as possible. Peeled and sliced avocados should be sprinkled with lemon or lime juice to retard discoloration; the citric acid also brings out the flavor.

To peel, cut the avocado length wise around the pit, then rotate the two halves in opposite directions. Gently put the tip of a spoon under the pit; if it comes out easily, the avocado is ripe. You can scoop the flesh out of the shell with a spoon, but in many cases the avocado will peel like a banana--just turn it over on the cut side and pull off the skin with your fingers.

Preparing

Avocados are great with a sprinkle of lemon or lime juice and salt. Mashed avocados, of course, the primary ingredient in guacamole, but the fruit is also delicious sliced and served with slices of ripe red tomato, or cut into slivers and added to tossed green salads. For a pretty salad plate, cut avocados in half length wise, leaving skins on, and remove the pits. Arrange on a bed of lettuce and fill the centers with crab, tuna, or chicken salad. Garnish with additional raw fresh vegetables and serve with bread if desired. An avocado pureed with a little lemon juice, salt, other seasonings, and perhaps a dab of olive oil makes a great creamy salad dressing for lettuce or other greens.

Avocados are also good on sandwiches. Any combination of avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, turkey, and chicken makes a great sandwich.

Grow Your Own Avocado Plant

The pit of an avocado will grow into a hardy houseplant. First wash and dry it, then insert three toothpicks around the perimeter, about halfway down from the pointed end. Fill a narrow-necked jar with tepid water, then balance the pit--broad end down--over the top so that the base of the pit is below the water line. Make sure the base (the root end) is submerged at all times and change the water frequently. If you have a small narrow-necked vase or a hyacinth glass--used for forcing hyacinth bulbs--you won't need the toothpicks.

Keep the seed out of direct sunlight until the bottom splits and roots emerge, which will take anywhere from two to six weeks. Then plant in a pot file with ordinary potting soil. As soon as you see a little more growth, put the plant in a sunny window. Avocados will grow in moderate light, but the more light, the better. You can put the plants out on the patio in the spring if you take care to harden them off by exposing them gradually to more and more light. If temperatures in your area never drop below freezing, you can plant your avocado directly in the ground. Water frequently and liberally.

Recipes

Speedy Guacamole

Other recipes from Produce Pete.

   

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