The “alligator pear” is crawling beyond the confines of Mexican cuisine and
California rolls looking to leave its mark on the culinary world at large.
The results are not only nutritious but also delightfully delicious!
An aphrodisiacal fruit
Though many people might assume it’s a vegetable, the avocado is actually a fruit. And long before it became famous as the main ingredient in guacamole, it was popular with ancient cultures like the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas for other things beyond sustenance. The Aztecs called the fruit ahutacatl, which means testicle, because the fruit grows in pairs and somewhat resembles that part of male anatomy, but also because it was believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac and fertility aid. Even today in parts of Latin America, the avocado is given at weddings as a symbol of fertility. The conquering Spanish changed the name to abocado. During Jamaica’s colonial days, the British gave it the nickname “alligator pear” for its crinkly green skin. But not all avocados are crinkly; some are smooth and they come in many different sizes and varietie. Some types of avocados can grow to up to three to four pounds while others like the hybrid strain called avocaditos, only grow to two inches long. The most popular species for culinary use is called the Hass, named after postman Rudolf Hass who first cultivated it in Southern California.
Although avocados are a good source of fiber, vitamins C, K, B6, and folate, and contain even more potassium than bananas, they received a bad reputation for their fat content a while back. Some were even calling them butter pears, and nutritionists recommended going easy on them. But later studies revealed that the fat in avocados is actually a heart-healthy transfat that helps lower cholesterol, plus they are full of antioxidants and can even regulate blood sugar levels. This was great news for vegetarians and vegans who have often relied on avocados to add protein and texture to their recipes. Now some celebrities have also jumped on the avocado bandwagon. Actors Tom Selleck and Jamie Foxx and Grammy-winning singer Jason Mraz each have their own commercial avocado farms and publicly promote the fruit whenever they can as a healthy dietary option.
Of course, the avocado is best known as the main ingredient in guacamole, but savvy chefs are getting creative with this friendly fruit. It gets along well with other foods since its unassuming taste allows other ingredients to pop, and its creamy texture helps bind foods together. Though it’s often added to salads, sandwiches, wraps, and sushi rolls, it can also be cooked and even baked. It prefers low heat, unless you grill it on the barbecue or bake an unripe avocado in its skin like a potato. Only add it to warm dishes like stir-fries at the very end. It also keeps its shape well for deep-frying – tempura avocado dipped in a Thai peanut sauce is to die for – and even fares well with cheese fondue. It pairs nicely with tarragon, fennel, and saffron to make amazing pasta sauces, is lovely in a cold bisque, and does the job as a savory topping for meat and fish. But it can also play nice with sweets, acting as a healthy substitute for butter, dairy, or even eggs in baked goods like breads, cakes, and cupcakes (though be prepared for things to take on a mildly green tint).
In Indonesia, they make avocado chocolate shakes, and Brazilians make avocado ice cream. Plain, soft, ripe avocado is also touted as a perfect baby food. Or how about an avocado popsicle as a deliciously different, healthy frozen treat? Avocado oil is becoming very popular as the base ingredient in homemade salad dressings and is also perfect for high heat cooking. And smoothie aficionados love the luscious, thick texture avocados provide, almost like a milkshake.
Tips and tricks
As wonderful as avocados are, choosing and storing these fruits can be tricky. Best enjoyed perfectly ripe, they will quickly become overripe if neglected. They are picked from the tree before they are mature, so generally you have to leave them on the counter a few days to ripen; they will ripen faster when put in a paper bag with an apple. (Do not refrigerate unripe avocados.) To be sure it’s ready, try pinching both ends before cutting into it; if they give a little then it’s good to eat; if you leave a dent, then it’s overripe. One way to test before you buy is to lift the little brown nub. If it’s dark brown underneath, the avocado is no good, but if it’s green, it’s ripe! Avocado flesh quickly oxidizes and turns an unappetizing brown when exposed to air. A little lemon juice helps to slow down the browning. Another neat trick is to leave the pit in the center, and cover the avocado with lemon juice, or store a cut avocado in an airtight container with a cut onion.
Aruban chefs are often going for the cutting edge of foodie trends, and beyond finding avocado to be a great ingredient in gourmet sauces for the fresh catch of the day, it’s popping up in all kinds of other delectable dishes as well. And some locals go to great lengths to grow their own trees even though the sandy soil and constant trade winds make it a real challenge. But the benefits of having this super fruit in your own backyard are well worth the efforts.
Avocados are a heart-healthy and easy-to-digest source of healthy nutrients, including vitamins A, B, C, and E, and 17 minerals. They are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fat.
Mix all ingredients together and serve with tortilla chips, corn chips, or fresh vegetables.