Whether it’s the suggestive shape or the nutritional stimulation, the avocado has long been considered an aphrodisiac. Indeed, because of its alleged ability to excite, the Aztecs forbade the use of avocado. But, today this tropical fruit is a culinary darling—sex symbol or not—that chefs embrace for its sublime versatility. Endowed with a soft, creamy flesh and a delicate nutty flavor, the avocado is an ideal multitasker on modern menus, as consultant and Chef Daniel Orr, has discovered. “I use them in soups, sandwiches, tartares, salads, ice creams, mousses, and sauces,” the chef reports, “and even in a frozen daiquiri with avocado, called the Alligator Margarita.” Voicing the opinion of many kitchen pros on the subject of avocados, Chef Orr muses, “What’s not to like?”
Although it doesn’t have a sweet flavor, the avocado is botanically considered a fruit because it has a pit surrounded by pulp. The wild avocado originated in south central Mexico about 8,000 years ago, and domesticated seeds have been found buried with Incan mummies. Mexico leads world production of avocado with over a million tons a year. California produces 95 percent of the domestic crop, primarily Hass avocados, according to the California Avocado Commission. Its buttery texture and nutty flavor make the pebbly-skinned Hass the favorite of chefs and consumers. This type makes up the bulk of Mexican production, too, and imports to the United States should lower the price of the Hass, which can cost chefs more than a $1 apiece wholesale. Prices fluctuate based on seasonal supplies.
Smooth-skinned Florida avocados, of which there are more than 50 varieties, are bigger, more fibrous, and contain less oil than California varieties. Because they have more water, they are often used for drinks. Hawaiian avocados are similar to the California variety. New Zealand grows avocado but that supply represents only a tiny part of the market.
A Fruit for All Seasons
“I like different varieties for different uses,” remarks Orr, when asked about his favorite avocados. “The Reed variety is perfect for shakes and sweets because of its mild flavor and sweetness,” he claims. “ The Hass and Pinkertons tend to be more vegetal and better for savory items and salsas.”
Sandy Garcia, formerly chef de cuisine of Kai, a boutique restaurant at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Phoenix, Arizona, makes an avocado mousse by mashing it in the food processor, adding a little gelatin, lime juice, and cream cheese as a binder. He adds sautéed corn kernels, teardrop tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper and serves it on top of fry bread in a large bowl with lobster tail on top. Garcia also uses avocado in a panzanella-style salad with heirloom tomatoes and Oaxaca cheese. Pureed avocado is often folded into homemade crème freîche as garnish for roasted poblano gnocchi.
New York Chef Joseph Cacace, currently in charge of an Italian kitchen at Il Bastardo in Chelsea, worked for many years in the Mexican restaurants Chango and Zocalo and loves to cook with avocados. He especially favors avocado soup—hot or cold. “A little goes a long way,” he says, “You can purée avocado into a sauce with chicken stock.” For a hot soup he adds onions, garlic, serrano, crème fraîche, lime juice, plum tomatoes, and a roasted corn garnish. Cacace also creates avocado chips. “You need a firm one,” he notes. “Slice very thinly and season it, dredge the slices lightly in Wondra, and put them in the deep fryer.”
Chef John Gonzales of Williamsburg, Virginia, uses avocado in a honey sweet vinaigrette over radicchio. “It is a nice contrast,” states this former executive chef of the Ritz Carlton-Fairfax and the Watergate who now operates an interactive cooking class/dining establishment he calls A Chef’s Kitchen. Avocados are often used in classes on appetizers, soups, and salads.
Even with its rich versatility in fine cooking, the avocado is still most popular in guacamole, the dip that Americans consume by the tons each year (especially on Super Bowl Sunday, the largest food consumption day after Thanksgiving).
“There are different schools of thought about guacamole,” says Cacace. “Rick Bayless likes it smooth, while Patricia Kennedy likes it chunky,” he notes, referring to the two high priests of Mexican cuisine. “I’m in between,” Cacace adds. He claims that chicken skin is a traditional addition to guacamole, but he likes duck skin better. “Fry it until crispy, then break it up and mix it into the guacamole.” His favorite way to serve guacamole is with fresh corn tortillas, “especially if the tortillas are just made and still warm. It’s an amazing contrast.”
In winter, Gonzales makes guacamole with a prepared salsa, and “we zip it up with fresh cilantro,” he states, “but in summer, we add a sprinkle of fresh tomatoes.”
Cacace believes that guacamole is not good when made to order in a restaurant. “The flavors don’t have time to blend,” so the chef makes it ahead. To store it, the chef advises: “Keep it covered and use enough acid to stop it from turning brown.”
Orr has another technique to keep guacamole from browning, “I place an avocado pit or two in the finished mix to help prevent it from discoloring. I also push plastic wrap down over it to stop air from circulating around the surface.” He also suggests brushing the surface with a bit of olive oil.
Slicing and Dicing
An avocado is opened by slicing it in half lengthwise, twisting the halves apart and removing the pit. Many use the tip of the knife to dislodge the pit, but Garcia claims, “People try to stab the pit with the tip of the knife and end up in the ER.” He suggests his staff pry out the pit with a finger. Garcia uses the knife to lightly score the opened avocado in a checkerboard pattern and flip the skin inside out.
Gonzales peels and dices at once by placing the avocado, flesh side down, over a stainless steel wire cooling rack propped over a non-reactive bowl. “With the meat side down against the grid,” he instructs, “ push the avocado through the cooling rack in a downward, scraping motion. The meat will go through the rack leaving nothing but the skin in your hand.” He learned this trick years ago when he saw a Mexican chef cutting up an avocado half by rubbing it over an inverted deep fat fryer basket. “Eureka,” he thought.
Worth the Wait
Avocados don’t ripen until picked. According to the California Avocado Commission, packing houses keep avocados in cold storage for 24 hours to remove field heat and preserve quality before they are shipped in double-layered cartons called lugs, which can sell for as much as $80 depending upon the season.
Garcia buys a lug (30 to 50) of California Hass avocados every two weeks from local purveyors, such as Aztec Produce. If they are hard, Garcia lets them sit out with the heirloom tomatoes until they begin to ripen, then moves them into the refrigerator.
Gonzales handpicks Hass avocados at the grocery store and a local chain out of Richmond called U-Crops, which does not refrigerate their fruit.
“There’s lots of superstition out there,” said Cacace about ripening avocados. “Some say you should put flour on them to make them ripen. I like to buy them a little hard and keep for a few days,” but he warns, “If too ripe, an avocado gets a slight bitterness. It should feel like a softening butter stage (not soft butter) while it still has some texture. That’s the time it is most amazing.”
And, it is the most “unctuous and addicting,” as Bayless has described the soft, ripe avocado. Arousing appetites as well as creativity, this once-forbidden fruit has earned its place in the pantheon of good taste and modern menus—as well as the occasional romantic promotion. Capitalizing on the avocado’s reputation for stimulating romance, Executive Chef Charlie Palmer always includes it on his annual Valentine’s Day Aphrodisiac tasting menu at Aureole restaurant in New York City. It’s in hot company along with oysters, chocolate, and other known culinary turn-ons. This year’s avocado dish was a mound of spicy arugula salad wrapped in coriander-dusted tuna carpaccio plated on a circle of avocado cream with an asparagus stalk propped against it. Hmmm. Pretty suggestive—and definitely irresistible.
by John Gonzales, chef/owner, A Chef’s Kitchen, Williamsburg, Virginia
Yield: one heaping cup
Avocados (8 oz each), halved and pitted 2
Freshly squeezed lime juice 2 tsp
Jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely minced 1 tsp packed
Fresh cilantro, finely chopped 1 Tbsp packed
Fresh oregano, finely chopped 1/2 tsp packed
Sea salt or fine Kosher salt 1/4 tsp or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper 1/8 tsp
Optional: 1/4 cup diced, seeded, ripe tomatoes, or substitute 2 tablespoons mild prepared salsa
1. Coarsely mash avocado by placing the cut avocado, flesh side down, over a stainless steel wire cooling rack propped over a non-reactive bowl. With the flesh side down against the grid, push the avocado through the cooling rack in a downward, scraping motion. The avocado flesh will go through the rack leaving nothing but the skin in your hand. Add the lime juice immediately and toss with the avocado.
2. Fold in remaining ingredients and if desired, the tomatoes. Serve with tortilla chips, cut sweet bell peppers, and thickly sliced cucumbers.
Chilled Avocado Velouté with Red Snapper Tartare
by Chef Daniel Orr
Yield: 4 servings
Avocados, very ripe but no brown spots 2
White chicken stock (light and clear) 2 cups
Lemon, juiced 1/2
Salt, black pepper, and Tabasco to taste
Skinless snapper fillet, half frozen and then very finely diced 3/4 lb
Serrano pepper, seeded, deveined, and minced 1
Avocado, diced fine 1/2
Red onion, diced fine 1/2
Fresh mint, minced 1/4 cup
Mellow yellow 1 tsp
Regime blend 1/2 tsp
Lemon, juiced 1
Extra virgin olive oil 2 Tbsp
Salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste
1. To make the soup, peel and pit the avocado and place in blender with remaining ingredients. Purée until very smooth. Add seasoning to taste. Set aside.
2. To make tartare, combine all ingredients that have no acid. Keep well chilled. Just before serving complete the tartare and season to taste. Reserve on ice until needed.
3. To serve, place tartare in chilled soup plates and garnish with fresh herbs. Tableside, ladle soup around the tartare and garnish.