Avocados are, to me, among 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, D.C.'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 in 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," presumably in reference to their shape. The avocado was warmly welcomed in the countries where it was introduced. And thanks in part to its accommodating 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.
Former political analyst Patricia Jinich left her job in a research policy institute to pursue her passion: Mexican food. She is the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., where she heads Mexican Table, a culinary program with workshops, cooking demonstrations and tasting dinners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three young sons. Read more at her blog, Pati's Mexican Table.
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.