I've often mourned the New England childhood I didn't have. The frosty Wheatena mornings. Picking blackberries on a hillside off the coast of Maine. Biting into a crisp, unwaxed apple while golden leaves crunched underfoot. Which isn't to say I didn't have leaves crunching underfoot, or my own regional horticulture. I did. I had avocados growing in my backyard. As it turns out, I grew up in what the California Avocado Commission calls the nation's "Avocado Capital." San Diego County produces 60% of California's avocado crop, and California, with 60,000 acres of groves between the Mexican border and San Luis Obispo, contributes 95% of avocado output nationwide. Haas avocados--the ancestor to those that grew wild in Mexico as far back to 8000 BC--with the black-green, bumpy skin that earned them the name "alligator pear," account for 85%. Other varieties include Reed, Bacon, Pinkerton, Zutano, Gwen and Fuerte, the latter the favorite for flavor among growers. However, as the Fuerte trees bear far less fruit, and the avocados are too sensitive to ship well, they are not as lucrative, and therefore not as popular as Hass.
When not sacrificed to the street-side stand, our big, shiny, green-skinned Fuertes were generally relegated to a simple smashed avocado sandwich on whole-wheat toast, smeared with copious amounts of mayonnaise and sprinkled with salt. This is arguably the best dish ever, but if you insist on branching out, avocados can be brought to much loftier purpose.
I like to spread what early American settlers referred to as "midshipman's butter" for its creamy texture on tuna or goat cheese sandwiches, or float slices atop vegetable, chicken or black bean soups, as is the tradition in Mexican tortilla soup. Avocados also add a nice nutty contrast to citrus and fish in ceviche. Perhaps not so obvious--and not a little disconcerting to a guacamole fan--is that, having a somewhat bland flavor, avocados can go either way: savory or sweet.
In Colombia, avocado milkshakes are de rigueur. Brazilians make avocado ice cream. And, as a Brazilian friend recommends, fill the crater left by the pit, into which my sister and I often poured vinaigrette, with milk or honey or both, taking care to spoon some of the liquid with every bite.
Not knowing that the Aztecs used their indigenous fruit as a sexual stimulant nor that the name ahuacatl means, in the native Aztec language, "testicle tree," the fruit-bearing trees surrounding my black bottom pool seemed as unremarkable as did navigating neighboring streets with names like Calavo, Fuerte and, well, Avocado. We had 13 testicle trees. Despite the fact that they were never pruned and rarely watered, the libidinous fruit continued to dangle, waiting to be plucked from the innocence of their twisted branches.
I didn't fully identify with my native fruit until I left the Avocado Capital for New York City, land of the avocado-impaired. Due to a trade agreement that allows the U.S. to import avocados from Mexico during the slow season (November through February) to the 19 Northeastern states, avocados are just as easy to come by and no more expensive than in their own habitat. Yet many Northeasterners, being the berry pickers and apple eaters that they are, still do not know the difference between an avocado and guacamole. Correct them and they think you're splitting hairs. Mash up a molcajete of guac--much less something as sophisticated as ceviche--and they'll think you're some kind of miracle maker.
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Tropical Scallop Ceviche in Avocado Halves
1 pound scallops (you may substitute ahi tuna, shrimp or sea bass)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3 ripe Haas avocados
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 red pepper, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, torn, not chopped
1 cup diced fresh pineapple, mango or peaches
1 cup corn nuts
Cut scallops into 1/4-inch pieces. Place in glass or ceramic bowl, pour over lime and orange juice, cover tightly and refrigerate one hour.
Cut avocados in half carefully, as they will be used for serving the ceviche. Scoop out contents, leaving about 1/4-inch of avocado on skin to hold up the "bowl." Chop scooped contents into 1/4-inch pieces and salt generously. Squeeze lime over "bowls" and avocado to prevent oxidation.
Take scallops out of refrigerator and add remaining ingredients, mixing carefully. (Hands are probably the best tool.) Add more salt to taste. Scoop into avocado halves and serve with good-quality (the thicker the better) corn chips, or with plantain chips. *
Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson