Avocados have long been considered an aphrodisiac--Mae West was an ardent supporter of their, um, effects. For a while early in the last century, advertisement of them was even restricted because of the connotations.
It's not surprising: the name is derived from an Aztec word--ahuacacuahatl--that means "testicle tree." Before your imagination goes wild, you should know that they hang in pairs from the tree. Enough said.
The avocado is indeed a unique fruit. Instead of storing its energy as sugar, as most fruits do, it stores it as fat. 20% fat--mostly monounsaturated. Avocados are full of fat, yes, but also offer 60% more potassium than a banana, have the highest fiber and folate per ounce of any fruit, and are good sources of B6, C and E, which makes them a highly nutritious food.
Avocados are native to Central America, where they've been grown for thousands of years and are a staple in many cultures. California and Florida are the largest producers of U.S. consumed avocados, and most of those are Haas (sometimes spelled Hass)--they account for 80% of sales.
The Hass avocado is a native of Guatemala. The pear-shaped fruits start out green and as they ripen, the skin turns darker and darker until it is nearly black (one clue to ripeness). There are a few other varieties available, one that stays green when ripe, as well as the large new "low-fat" types, which don't have much flavor.
Avocados don't begin to ripen until removed from the tree, where they can be held for several months in limbo. Once picked, they're ready to eat in about a week.
The best way to tell a ripe avocado is by feel. Hold it in your hand as you would the remote control and give it a gentle squeeze. An unripe avocado feels like a stone. A nearly ripe avocado will yield slightly under the pressure, like a ripe tomato. A truly ripe one is as soft as the padded palm of your hand. Avoid ones that feel loose in their skin--these are overripe.
You don't have to buy a ripe avocado unless you plan on eating it immediately. If yours is less-than-ripe, store it in a paper bag with an apple for a day or so. The ethylene gas released by the apple will speed the ripening of the avocado. Store avocados at room temperature. (They won't ripen in the refrigerator and will turn brown, to boot.)
To cut an avocado, hold it in your hand and slice through the skin and the flesh to the pit all the way around, lengthwise. Twist each half in opposite directions to separate them and use a spoon to scoop out the pit. You can plant the seed and grow your own tree as a houseplant, but you'll need patience--avocados take five to thirteen years to bear fruit. It's a fun experiment, though, and they make an attractive houseplant.
The next step depends on your use of the avocado. For slices or mashing, hold one half in your hand skin side down and slice through the meat to, but not through the skin. If you're going to use it in slices stop now. If you're going to mash it, turn the avocado and do the same thing cross-wise. Now just use a spoon to scoop out your sliced or diced avocado.
Like apples, avocados will brown when exposed to air. And, also like apples, a little lemon juice sprinkled on cut pieces will help prevent that.
By themselves, the flavor is mild and almost buttery. A touch of salt does wonders, though, heightening the flavor and bringing out the depth. A touch of acid adds even more.
That's why guacamole is so irresistible. The salt and the lemon juice combine with the avocado and a hint of onion to produce a heavenly treat. You can add other ingredients such as tomatoes and cilantro, but I prefer this simple recipe that lets flavor of the avocado shine.
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced onion
Peel, pit and mash the avocados with a fork. Stir in the lemon juice, the salt and the onion, then let the flavors blend for half an hour before serving. Guacamole is terrific with corn tortilla chips, of course, but is equally good on a hamburger or other sandwich.
If you've only eaten avocados in guacamole, try them in salads, too, where they'll add richness and flavor. Consider them on sandwiches to add fiber, nutrients and flavor instead of plain old mayonnaise.
Avocados and tomatoes are a perfect match--the acid in the tomatoes perks up the flavor of the avocados. Try tossing them together as a simple salad, or adding some hunks of avocado to your next salsa.
Smoked fish and avocado are double treat together. Top slices of avocado with some smoked salmon or trout and a little green onion for an appetizer that will make you want to skip dinner.
Avocados are called "poor man's butter" in the tropics because of their texture and plentifulness there. The way I see it, one bite will make any man--or woman--feel rich.
For information on growing Avocados, see Growing Fruit All Year Round: Avocados
About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.