PATI'S MEXICAN TABLE

February 11, 2010 6:00 PM
Romancing The Avocado


Avocados are, to me, amongst the most sensuous, luscious and luxurious of ingredients.  Add how delicious, soft and subtly flavored they are, and you get a clear winner for Valentine's Day.

Despite the many pounds of avocados we go through at home each week, regardless of the infinite number of cases I use for events at Washington, DC's Mexican Cultural Institute, and  notwithstanding that my sisters and I used them for hair and face treatments as we were growing up (all those nurturing natural oils and vitamins), I still find avocados to be wow-inducing.

If there's an avocado dish on a restaurant menu, it lands on my table.

So if I am planning a menu, especially with a hint of romance, avocados will be there...
I am not unique thinking that avocados are something special. To the Aztecs, who ate avocados in Mexico for centuries before the Spaniards arrived, they were revered fruit considered to have strong fertility and aphrodisiac powers. Indeed, the Spanish word aguacate comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, or "testicles," presumbly in reference to their shape. The avocado was warmly welcomed in the countries where it was introduced. And thanks in part to its accomodating nature - its meat can be smashed, diced, pureed, stuffed or sliced, or it can be part of a filling or a centerpiece - it has been creatively adopted in many cuisines.

It is true that many people think of guacamole when they hear "avocado." And there must be more than a thousand reasons to love guacamole. Fast and easy to make, and so fun to eat, it screams out fiesta with each bite. My favorite way to make guacamole is to mix diced avocado with chopped onion and cilantro, squeeze fresh lime juice on top, sprinkle with sea salt and top it off with chopped chipotle chilis in adobo.

Guacamole, though, is just the tip of the avocado iceberg, both inside and outside Mexican cuisine.

Think about eel-and-avocado sushi, a French salad with layers of avocado sprinkled with Roquefort cheese, or an Italian salad with layers of ripe avocado and ash-coated goat cheese, olive oil, coarse salt and basil leaves. It's hard to imagine a vegetarian sandwich without avocados.

I have tried eight varieties of avocados, and though I like most of them, the one I prefer is the Hass variety. It is available year-round, and is creamy and rich rather than fibrous like other kinds, such as El Fuerte.

Avocados are a fruit that ripen off the tree, so they are often sold unripe. If you are in a hurry to use an avocado, you can hasten the ripening process by wrapping it in newspapers or keeping it in a paper bag in a warm area of the kitchen. If you can wait, it will ripen at a nice pace uncovered in the kitchen. 

When ripe, the Hass, with the pebbly skin completely blackened, will give a bit with a gentle squeeze of your hand. If it doesn't, then it needs a bit more time to mature. You can keep a ripe avocado in the refrigerator for up to a week. It is apparently a myth that keeping the seed in a cut avocado keeps it from darkening. What does seem to help is to squeeze fresh lime juice on top.

Here are four of my favorite takes on avocado: an elegant-looking appetizer, a retro mousse, an exotic-sounding soup and a hearty sandwich. Regardless of which way you use it, including avocado in your romantic dinner - as long as it's not in a hair or skin treatment -  will show your Valentine that you really care.

Article written for and published by National Public Radio's Kitchen Window.

Stuffed Avocados with Hearts of Palm and Artichoke Salad

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS
14 ounces (1 1/3 cups) hearts of palm, drained, rinsed and sliced
14 ounces (1 1/2 cups) artichoke hearts, drained, rinsed and sliced
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
4 tablespoons chopped red bell pepper
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, ground, or more to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil
3 ripe Hass avocados, halved and seeded just before stuffing

TO PREPARE
In a bowl, mix the hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, red onion, red bell pepper and parsley.

To prepare the vinaigrette, pour the tarragon vinegar in a small bowl and mix it with the salt, sugar and black pepper. Pour the oils in a slow stream, whisking with a whisk or fork to emulsify. Pour it over the vegetables. Toss well to cover.

You may prepare the hearts of palm and artichoke salad ahead of time, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

When ready to eat, halve and seed the avocados. Scoop the hearts of palm and artichoke salad on top and serve.

Avocado, Pistachio and Watercress Mousse

Serves 14-16

INGREDIENTS
3 ripe Hass avocados(about 2 1/4 pounds), halved and seeded
2 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
8 ounces cream cheese
1 bunch watercress(about 1 cup), leaves and top parts of stems chopped
2 tablespoon sliced scallions(about 6), white and light green parts only
8-ounce can (2/3 cup) water chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped
2/3 cup pistachios, shelled and roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, ground, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
2/3 cup cold water
3 1/4 ounce envelope unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup boiling water
Olive oil to grease the mold
Toasted bread or crackers, optional
Smoked salmon, optional

TO PREPARE
Scoop out meat from avocados and mash it in a bowl with a fork. Pour in lime juice and combine well with a spatula. Incorporate the cream cheese, mixing it thoroughly with the avocados. Add the watercress, scallions, water chestnuts, pistachios, cayenne, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce and salt. Mix well.

Measure 2/3 cup cold water in a cup. Stir in the gelatin, mix and let it rehydrate for a minute or two. Add 1/3 cup boiling water and stir until it dissolves. Pour gelatin into the avocado mix, incorporating it with a spatula.

Lightly grease a ring mold with olive oil. Pour the avocado mix into the mold. Shake the mold softly a couple of times to level the mix. Cover it well and place it in the refrigerator until it is set, for at least 3 hours. You can leave it overnight or until you are ready to unmold. The avocado mousse will last beautifully in the refrigerator for 2 days. When ready to unmold, remove from the refrigerator, run the tip of a knife along the edges and flip onto a plate. You may need to shake the mold a couple of times, holding onto the plate as you do so.

You may serve it on a platter, retro style, with some watercress leaves in the center of the ring or on top. Or serve it already sliced with a side of smoked salmon and pieces of toast.

AVOCADO SOUP WITH TORTILLA CRISPS AND FRESH CHEESE
Serves 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon corn or safflower oil
1 1/4 cup white onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeƱo chili, sliced in half, seeding optional if less heat is desired, optional
3 large ripe Hass avocados(about 2 1/4 pounds), halved, seeded, meat scooped out
3/4 cup cilantro leaves, rinsed and loosely packed
6 cups chicken broth(may substitute vegetable broth)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, more or less to taste
1 1/2 cups tortilla crisps(see below)
1 cup queso fresco, crumbled (may substitute farmers cheese or a mild feta)

TO PREPARE
Heat butter and oil in a medium skillet set over medium-low. Once butter melts and bubbles, stir in the onion and jalapeno. Cook, stirring periodically, until the onion has softened and become translucent, and the edges are beginning to brown lightly, 12 to 15 minutes. Add cilantro leaves to the pan. Once cilantro has wilted, 30 seconds to a minute later, turn off the heat.

Place avocado in the blender or food processor along with the cooked onion and jalapeno mixture, broth, lime juice and salt. Puree until smooth, taste for salt and add more if necessary.

You may serve in bowls garnished with tortilla crisps and cheese, or let your guests add garnishes to their liking.

Tortilla Crisps
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

INGREDIENTS
5 corn tortillas(5 to 6 inches wide)
Safflower or corn oil
1/2 teaspoon table salt, more or less to taste

TO PREPARE
On a chopping board, slice tortillas in half and then vertically in half again. Then slice across in strips of 1/4 to 1/2 inch, depending on how thick you like them.

Traditional (fried): In a medium skillet, add 1/4 inch oil and place over medium-high heat. Once it is hot, anywhere from 4 to 6 minutes, add tortilla pieces. When you add a tortilla to the oil, it should immediately start to bubble. Fry, stirring and flipping occasionally, until they achieve a golden tan and slightly brown color and are hard and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate covered with paper towel. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Baked: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray or gently brush a baking sheet with corn or safflower oil. Place tortilla pieces on top and spray or gently brush a light layer of oil. Judiciously sprinkle with salt to taste.Place in oven and bake for about 20 minutes, stirring and flipping once or twice until they achieve a golden tan and slightly brown color and appear hard and crisp.Remove from oven, let them cool and place in a bowl or container.

CHOPPED EGG AND AVOCADO SANDWICH
Serves 3 to 4

INGREDIENTS
3 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped white onion
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill, or 1/4 teaspoon dry dill
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1 large ripe Hass avocado(about 3/4 pound), halved, seeded, meat scooped out and diced
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, more or less to taste
Black pepper, ground, to taste
6 to 8 slices brioche or challah, or any bread of your choice, lightly toasted
4 slices Muenster, Mexican manchego or chihuahua or Monetery Jack cheese(optional)

TO PREPARE
In a bowl, mix the eggs, onion, parsley, dill, Dijon and mayonnaise together. Toss in the avocado, sprinkle with salt and pepper and gently mix well.

Lightly toast the bread slices. Scoop a generous amount of the chopped egg and avocado on a slice of bread, add a slice of cheese and top with another slice of bread.