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February, 2011

Aztec Chips n Dip

By Dennis Linden

While cupid may be the official mascot of February, the avocado is certainly this month’s most popular fresh food
Guacamole Kit
Last year, on Super Bowl Sunday 2010, more than 46 million pounds of avocadoes were consumed in this country. This is an especially impressive figure considering just how many bowls of Guacamole that represents; in fact, someone even took the time to figure out that that amount of avocadoes would make enough of the green sauce to cover a football field, goal post to goal post, seventeen feet deep! (This calculation has not been fact checked!)

While a football field of “guac” is an awesome vision for the imagination, this writer will take his avocadoes one bowl at a time, thank you -- blended with chopped onion and tomato, a handful of diced up chile peppers, some cilantro leaves and a dash of salt. The basic recipe has not changed much in at least 500 years when the first sightings of smashed avocadoes mixed with tomatoes and onion were described by the Spanish explorers who encountered the Aztec empire in the early 1500s. By the by, the Aztecs did not have mayonnaise or sour cream in their pantries so please do not “gringo-up” this wonderful sauce of fresh ingredients with these unnecessary additives that only add fat and mask the buttery flavor of the avocado.
Tamale Kit
Like many other gastronomic delights indigenous to the Americas, we owe our gratitude for this creamy rich dipping sauce to an anonymous Aztec chef. While this culture is thought to be a warrior nation focused on conquering people and territory, someone was in the kitchen creating tamales, tortillas and hot cocoa, to name just a few other common menu items that are the culinary legacy of this ancient culture to restaurant and home kitchens around the world.

The key to good Guacamole starts with the right avocado variety, which is without question the Hass. Due to its high oil (good fat) content, this variety’s superior taste has no competition. Other varieties, like the large and more fibrous Florida avocadoes or the watery Fuertes that look like a smooth green Hass, will make into sauces that will be just that -- fibrous and/or watery. So, as the saying goes, accept no substitutes.
Organic Avocado
Interestingly, the Hass is a chance seedling with murky ancestry that cannot be accurately traced. The first sapling was purchased by Rudolph Hass from a commercial nursery in Whittier, California that kept sloppy records about where the business obtained its seed stock. The tree was planted in 1926 and, when it became apparent that the fruit had consistently distinct characteristics from other varieties, Hass was the first to have a tree patented nine years later. Though it finally succumbed to root rot and was cut down on the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002, all Hass avocadoes can be traced back to this single tree. Unfortunately, patent laws in 1935 lacked the technology to enforce them, so Mr. Hass got fame but no fortune and a plaque was placed where the tree used to stand.

Rudolph should take pride in the fact that most domestic avocados in the marketplace come from California’s more than 6,000 avocado groves, located in the southern part of the state and are, by far, orchards of the Hass variety. The 2009/10 California avocado crop totaled almost 250,000 tons, the fourth largest in the history of California avocado production.

Avocados must reach full maturity before they are picked, however, they do not soften on the tree. This characteristic makes the harvesting of avocadoes an exact science. The tree can actually be used as a storage unit by keeping the fruit on the tree for many months after maturing. Avocadoes with low oil content are susceptible to cold damage, which can turn the interior grey, especially during transit to the marketplace. An avocado that ripens with black or dark brown discoloration on the fruit was picked before the oil content had reached its full maturity.

The popularity of the fruit in this country requires a year around supply. After the supply of California avocadoes is depleted in early Fall, imports from Mexico and Chile provide fruit until our domestic crop starts up again in the spring. This year a combination of poor growing conditions in both countries resulted in avocado imports into this country being some fifty-percent below normal. California’s own growing season has been plagued with very wet weather also; though estimates are still being formed, expect supplies to be quite a bit less than last season’s bumper crop.

Now to address the key contributing factor to the outstanding flavor of the Hass avocado and, consequently, all guacamole sauce made from the variety – namely, its oil content. Here are the facts by the gram. The fat content of the avocado is primarily heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. One average-sized fruit contains 21 grams of total fat, including 15 grams of monounsaturated, plus 2.5 grams each of polyunsaturated and saturated fat. Avocados are cholesterol free, have the highest protein content of any fruit and more potassium than bananas. The American Heart Association recommends choosing monounsaturated fats in place of saturated fats as part of a heart-healthy diet. While it is true that a peach has less saturated fat than an avocado, it is also true that a peach makes lousy guac! Life is full of little compromises--at least this one goes well with chips and salsa. So enjoy the Super Bowl with another super bowl!