A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on October 16, 2002.



Cooking Fresh
No reason to feel guilty about avocados
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

I WOULD like to see avocados officially declared a guiltless pleasure. Avocados have an awful lot of health benefits going for them.

It seems a shame to indulge only occasionally.

But it's still a fruit that is mostly fat, so I have to struggle to keep my avocado obsession in check. I threw a party recently, and a group of us had a hard time removing ourselves from the vicinity of the guacamole, which consisted of nothing more than buttery Reed avocados, a squeeze of lime and some salt.

Like a pack of hungry jackals, we attacked the hapless avocado dip until little more than a few green smears remained in the bowl.

The Nerf-ball-sized Reeds came from avocado grower Will Brokaw, of Brokaw Nursery. Brokaw, whose family has been in the avocado business for 45 years, has land in Soledad and Ventura County, where the hot days and cool nights produce exceptionally rich, creamy avocados.

Brokaw's orchards aren't organic, but, he points out, "Avocados don't really require much in the way of chemical application. They're very low maintenance in terms of susceptibility to insects and other maladies, but they're high maintenance to grow."

Brokaw has planted his orchards in rows on steep clay hillsides, which means he is unable to use tractors.

Brokaw grows four varieties of avocados for eating, in addition to several others used for seed. The Reeds, which are in season now, are the largest, sometimes weighing up to 22 ounces.

They taste similar to the more familiar Hass. They are creamy with a high oil content, but with a thinner, smoother skin and lighter green color than the dark, purply-green, pebbly skinned Hass.

Pinkerton, a spring variety, tastes similar to Hass, but has a more elongated neck and lighter color. Brokaw's favorite avocados are his late fall Gwens.

"They taste as good as any avocado, but they come out at a time of year when there's a shortage of other varieties, so it's a treat to have them around."

Even if you buy them at the farmers' market, avocados are never tree-ripened, says Brokaw. But farmer's market avocados are often fresher than those at a commercial grocery store.

Commercial growers pick avocados while they are still hard, then put them in a cooler for anywhere from three weeks to a month to ripen.

"Avocados can last up to a month in the refrigerator, but by the time these reach the consumer, they don't have any storageability left," says Brokaw. "They're often brown inside. Their shelf life is shot. Our goal as a small grower is to just try and get our avocados to the consumer as fresh as possible."

Brokaw ripens his avocados at room temperature for five to seven days, then cools them for as short a time as possible, usually three to five days. "The idea is to get them to a ripened or semi-ripened state, then cool them to halt that process and prevent further ripening until the consumer buys them."

Although avocados are botanically a fruit, Brokaw's father likens them to nuts. "He says they're the only tree fruit that's pure oil. They're full of fat like nuts are."

That fat is monounsaturated, meaning it lowers cholesterol levels that are damaging to the heart.

Although the leaves are toxic to some animals, most notably horses, they can be found in the preparation of certain Latin recipes, including some versions of the Mexican sauce mole.

One of my favorite salads is that of baby lettuces, avocado, blood orange or grapefruit, and pickled red onion, dressed with a little Champagne vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Avocados also pair very well with roasted beets or thinly sliced radishes in a salad.

In warm weather, an avocado-watercress salsa makes a refreshing accompaniment to grilled fish. Or blend an avocado with some poached tomatillos, white onion, and Serrano chilies for a rich salsa verde to spoon atop carne asada tacos.

When choosing avocados, apply gentle pressure to the stem end and look for a slight bit of give. You can store them for up to a few days at room temperature or a month in the refrigerator (but don't refrigerate until they're ripe).

Avocados will oxidize once cut, but the addition of acid such as lemon or lime juice will help prevent discoloration.

I can't vouch for the theory of leaving the pit in the guacamole bowl to prevent oxidization, but lime juice and a piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the dip will keep your guacamole looking fresh enough to draw a voracious crowd at your next party, too.

Brokaw Nursery avocados are available at the Berkeley, Ferry Plaza, Menlo Park, Santa Cruz, and Felton farmers' markets.

AVOCADO-WATERCRESS SALSA

1 bunch watercress, washed, dried, stems trimmed, and coarsely chopped

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or Champagne vinegar

Juice of one lime

Zest of one lime, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 large ripe avocado, diced

Combine all ingredients except for avocado. Gently fold in avocado, taking care not to mash it up. Adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve immediately on top of grilled fish, chicken, or thinly sliced skirt or flank steak. Makes about 2 cups

Per 1/2 cup: 99 Calories; 8g Fat; 2g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 10mg Sodium.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org




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Last modified: March 26, 2002