YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Food & Drink

Field to Fork: The popular avocado, top to bottom

By From page A7 | September 26, 2012

My sons don’t seem to understand their important role when it comes to supplying avocados to the family.

Our older lad, who has a house in Los Angeles, has a large back yard filled with successful fruit trees — limes, lemons, grapefruit and two large guava trees. For six months, I pressured him to rip out a guava tree and replace it with a Hass avocado. No dice. The guavas are hugely popular with his fiancée’s family.

Then there’s the other lad, who once rented a cool little house by the ocean in Solana Beach. The yard had not one but two well-established avocado trees. And he moved. So much for that.

I can’t grow them here — Davis is too far north, with the wrong climate for Hass avocados, which are far and away the best variety. Growers in the Carlsbad area down south grow acres upon acres of avocados in their ideal environment. It’s where Sheri Williamson and Margaret Crane, partners in Williamson Farms, grow the avocados they sell at the Davis Farmers Market. The two women sell their avocados at other farmers markets in Sacramento and the Bay Area as well. California Hass avocados have a long season that should end toward the back of October.

Nationally, avocado sales were up 30 percent during the first half of this year compared to 2011. More high-volume chain restaurants are placing avocados into their lineups. And overall consumer demand picked up substantially a few years ago, after both Doctor Oz and Oprah endorsed avocados on their programs, according to Crane.

Avocados are high in calories, but it’s the type of fat that’s good in the battle against “bad” cholesterol. They’re so smooth and silky by way of mouth feel, and they nicely offset acidic or piquant elements, which is one reason they’re great in salsas that have red onion, pepper, fresh coriander or vinegar at play.

Sometimes the supermarkets have a special with avocados. Most often this means that a packer gets the call, and a supply of avocados is pre-conditioned through a treatment with ethylene gas in a closed space. It’s a treatment similar to the gassing given to commercial tomatoes in agribusiness when targeted for retail sales. It hastens ripening. “When they get to the store, they’re just starting to break a little,” said Crane, referring to the ripening process for avocados.

Unfortunately, I’ve found mixed results with pre-conditioned avocados, especially when they’re advertised specials. While some are great, others turn brown or stringy inside far too readily — within two or three days. I’ve found it to be a crapshoot. Since most avocados sold in the United States come from Mexico, there can be a long distribution chain that isn’t a favorable thing either.

Crane says a lot of her customers also speak of the unreliable quality found with supermarket avocados. I buy them sometimes in the supermarkets, but often from Williamson Farms, with superior results. But isn’t that the same thing that happens when we buy tomatoes at a farmers market, versus stores? You just wouldn’t think so because all the Hass avocados look the same in the different environments, whereas color comes into play with tomatoes.

When Diane and I visited Solana Beach in the summer — why did our son move? — we’d bring down a heavy load of garden-ripe red tomatoes to make batches of salsa every day. After he moved, we still went down there, and at least we could buy avocados cheaply, given the proximity of the orchards. This time of year, avocado goes beautifully into salads that include tangy arugula, black olives and feta cheese, with an olive oil and vinegar dressing. And as the NFL season gets rolling, guacamole is, of course, a standard for football games.

How do you gauge the ripeness of an avocado, when color really isn’t a factor? Press the area around the stem gently. If it has some give, the avocado is getting ripe. If it gives a lot, it’s definitely ripe, and can go into the refrigerator to retard deterioration and extend its edibility. One doesn’t refrigerate ripe tomatoes, but yes, do so with ripe avocados.

Have you ever struggled to get the pit out of an avocado half or to scoop out the flesh in one large halves? Run a blade around the avocado lengthwise, of course, and create two halves. Take a kitchen knife and lightly chop into the exposed pit. The knife blade will stick. Apply sideways leverage to break the pit out of its hold for removal. As for getting the flesh out nicely, slip a soup spoon around the interior up against the skin.

If you want to save half for another night, wrap it tightly in shrink-wrap to prevent discoloration and store in the refrigerator. If you want to hasten ripening at home, by the way, place the avocado in a small paper bag, closed, for a number of hours, even a day. Check as you go.

We’ve been having rather hot days as September heads into October. Here’s a variation on an avocado salad recipe from Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, from long ago. It features a piquant, summery dressing perfect for our weather.

Avocado and tomato salad

Arrange slices of tomato and crescents of sliced avocado atop a small bed of arugula, mizuna or other piquant green. Drizzle with the following vinaigrette. Naturally, you might want a bit of protein, and a bit of sliced turkey from the deli department would be at home here. Canned sardines in water also work well, if you’re a sardine lover.

Citrus-Chili Vinaigrette from Greens
2 tablespoons very good orange juice
1 tablespoon lime juice (fresh)
1 jalapeno chili, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/4 tablespoon light olive oil*
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine half the chili with the other ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Test for piquancy that suits you, and blend in more of the jalapeno as needed. This makes a third of a cup.
*Light olive oil is a product from supermarket shelves. It has little flavor, which is the point. Some accomplished chefs also prefer it for sautéing. In its stead, use a local extra virgin olive with a light flavor. Avoid a powerful tasting olive oil that overwhelms the subtlety of the other ingredients.

Dan Kennedy

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