The Fruit of the Conquistador

by Mark R. Vogel

           In 1519 Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes (a.k.a. Hernando Cortez), and his entourage were the first Europeans to enter Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, and forerunner to modern day Mexico City.  Originally welcomed as a god by Montezuma, the leader of the Aztecs, Cortes eventually conquered and destroyed much of the city, thus claiming the territory for Spain.  Thousands were killed in the pursuit of European imperialism.  On a less barbaric note, Cortes is also credited with introducing the avocado to Europe, a fruit he found in abundance in and around Mexico. 

            The avocado originated somewhere in the tropics of either Central or South America; the exact location being in dispute.  Archeological evidence suggests the avocado has been cultivated for seven to eight thousand years.  Its name comes from the Nahuatl word for testicle, supposedly because of the avocado’s shape.  The Nahua were the Indians of central Mexico, of which the Aztecs were one subgroup.  Due to the avocado’s genital reference, it naturally became thought of as an aphrodisiac. 

            Avocados are a rather unique fruit, having a rich, buttery texture.  There are many varieties, but the two most common are the Hass and the Fuerte.  The preferred Hass is smaller, dark green to black, and pebbly-skinned. The Fuerte is larger, greener, and smoother.  The Hass is the only variety available year round.  California produces over ninety percent of the world’s avocados and is a leading consumer as well. 

            Avocados ripen best off the tree.  Unless they’ve been languishing in the produce section, most of the avocados you’ll encounter in the supermarket are hard and unripe.  They will need at least a few days to ripen, a process that can be accelerated by keeping them in a paper bag.  When they yield to gentle pressure but are not mushy they are at the peak of ripeness.  Choose avocados that are heavy for their size and unblemished. 

            To harvest an avocado take a large chef’s knife and cut the center from pole to pole until you hit the pit.  Slice your knife around the other side of the avocado, using the pit as your guide.  Then, simply twist the two halves to separate them.  Now hold the half containing the pit in your one hand, and with a swift, yet carefully aimed stroke of the knife, strike the pit dead center.  Twist the knife and remove the pit. 

            Avocados contain vitamins C and E, a range of B vitamins, and numerous minerals.  And while they have a notable fat content (an eight-ounce avocado has about thirty grams of fat), most of it is the healthy monosaturated fat, as found in olive oil.        

            Avocados are at their best when used raw or very lightly cooked.  Extended cooking can reduce their flavor or make them bitter.  Freshly cut avocados will discolor when exposed to air, so either use them immediately or douse them with citrus juice to retain the color.  Employ avocados in salads, soups, condiments, spreads and other preparations.  I like simple, freshly chopped and salted avocado, and eating it with my steak.  And of course, how could we not mention guacamole, a dish that has its roots in the Aztec’s culinary repertoire.

 

GUACAMOLE                                             

 

1 small onion, chopped

3 jalapenos or 2 serrano chiles, chopped

Chopped cilantro to taste

Juice of one lime

Salt to taste

2 ripe Hass avocados

 

            Guacamole is a snap.  Chop the onion, peppers and cilantro, add the remaining ingredients and mash with a potato masher to break down the avocado and mix everything.  Serve immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Make sure the plastic is actually touching the guacamole to inhibit discoloration. 

            Guacamole is often served with large chunks of avocado as opposed to my procedure of thoroughly mashing it.  Prepare it to suit your own taste but consider the following.  When you bite into a large chunk of avocado, you’re tasting nothing but the avocado, which to my mind, defeats the purpose of making guacamole.  Unadulterated pieces of avocado are rather bland.  Mashing the avocado uniformly blends it with all of the other ingredients.  Every bite is a harmonious integration of all the flavor elements.  Finally, adjust the types and/or amounts of hot peppers to your preferred heat level.  Although a sacrilege, substitute bell pepper for zero kick. 

 

HABANERO-AVOCADO SOUP

 

            This recipe comes from the book “Hot & Spicy Latin Dishes” by Dave DeWitt et al., of Chile Pepper Magazine.

 

2 large ripe avocados, peeled and pitted

1 habanero chile, seeds and stems removed, minced

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

6 tortillas, quartered and fried in oil until crisp

 

            Mash the avocados and put them through a sieve.  Place them in a heated soup tureen.  Heat the habanero and chicken stock with the cream in a saucepan and stir well.  Pour the stock into the avocados, stirring to mix, or beat lightly with a whisk.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and sprinkle with cilantro.  Serve immediately with the tortillas. 


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