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Peeling avocados, making guacamole. April 9, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Not being a fan of slimy textures, I have to confess that I’ve never tried to peel an avocado before. But here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I are trying to add avocados’ good fats and other healthy benefits to our diets, so I’ve been adding guacamole to our burritos, and even using it as a dip for chips if it looks chunky and good.

Which is to say that a lot of guac looks and tastes like green slime. But occasionally, you stumble on a guac that has great texture, great color, and great flavor. Our favorite, from the local restaurant Fiesta Ole, is made fresh with diced tomatoes and onion, as well as several other ingredients, added in. It’s so delicious we’re tempted to just make a meal of it with chips.

But we can’t always be running off to a restaurant for our Mexican fix, so I was determined to try to recreate that gorgeous guacamole at home. Right now, I’m thinking of slicing/mashing Haas (now more commonly known as Hass) avocados with lemon or lime juice and mixing in diced paste tomatoes, diced sweet onion, minced green onion, minced garlic, chopped cilantro, and minced jalapeno. What do you think?

However, the first challenge is peeling the avocado. I saw a program back in November that demonstrated cutting an avocado by slicing it in two around the seed, twisting the halves, and popping them apart, then extracting the seed and removing the flesh with a tablespoon. This seemed like a good approach to me until I recently read that most of the nutrients in avocados lie in the dark green layer just under the skin.

The authors of this article suggested halving and twisting the avocado just as in the demonstration and popping out the seed. But then they said to quarter the halves, and then peel the skin off from the top of each quarter by hand, like a banana. This leaves the dark green layer and all its nutrients intact.

So I plan to try this banana-peeling technique, though admittedly, I’m concerned about bruising the notoriously easily discolored avocado flesh by holding on to the quarter while attempting to peel it. It’s difficult enough to keep the avocados in guacamole from discoloring—turning a most unappetizing brown—under any circumstances, and especially when a recipe calls for refrigerating the finished guac for an hour before serving so the flavors can blend. (Thus the lime or lemon juice.) In this case, I think Fiesta Ole’s tableside preparation and immediate serving of the finished guac makes sense.

But there’s something else that makes sense to me: Buying those containers of fresh hot salsa at the grocery and mixing them into the avocado and lime or lemon juice. The fresh hot salsa already has diced onion, tomato and jalapeno. You can add some chopped cilantro or not as you choose. But with or without cilantro, you have super-fast guacamole that packs a flavor punch.

I have three Haas/Hass avocadoes to work with, so I plan to experiment with both the from-scratch and from-fresh-salsa methods and see whether they’re both good or whether there’s a clear winner. In any case, OFB and I will be adding guacamole to our healthy snacking routine.

‘Til next time,



Salad dressing goes green. November 17, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. When I was a child, a thick, creamy salad dressing called Green Goddess was all the rage. But I have to say I’ve never tasted it. My beloved Mama adored all things French and chic, as well as Julia Child and Jackie Kennedy. Our salads were dressed with classic vinaigrette: extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, fresh-cracked black pepper, salt, an assortment of herbs. To this day, my favorite dressing combines extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, fresh-cracked black pepper and salt, with the most robust horseradish I can find and some fresh-squeezed lemon (I prefer to add my herbs, fresh-chopped, directly to the salad).

But, while I adore all things Julia, I also have a rabid interest in culinary history. Green Goddess dressing is, well, green. What would make a dressing green? Avocado, I thought. And why on earth would Green Goddess dressing have been one of the most popular dressings in America, and then simply disappear? (Try to find it in your local grocery.) What did it taste like, anyway?

It turns out that Green Goddess dressing is a lot more complex than I assumed, starting with its name. Yes, the dressing is green, but it was made green to honor a 1923 play called “The Green Goddess.” It became a hit in San Francisco and throughout the West Coast, but avocado never played a part in its ingredient list. Instead, it was made from mayonnaise, sour cream, chervil, tarragon, chives, anchovies, lemon juice, and pepper. The chervil, chives and tarragon gave Green Goddess her classic green hue.  

Green Goddess reigned supreme among salad dressings until ranch dressing came on the scene in 1954, created by Steve Henson to serve his guests at his dude ranch, Hidden Valley Ranch. Hidden Valley Ranch dressing was born, and it’s been ranch dressing ever since. According to Wikipedia, Mr. Henson made his dressing with buttermilk, mayonnaise, onions, garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, ground mustardseed, chives, parsley, and dill. Home cooks have added sour cream or plain yogurt.

So, if green goddess dressing was green because of tarragon, chives, and chervil, why isn’t ranch dressing green from chives, parsley, and dill? Maybe the green goddess dressing simply used a lot more of the herbs, but I suspect that the clincher was that green goddess was made with fresh herbs and ranch contained dried herbs. (And maybe dude ranch guests of the Fifties didn’t like their dressing green.)

By the time ranch dressing came along, it was clear that salad dressings could become big business if they could be made shelf-stable. At first, ranch, like green goddess, had to be refrigerated—a status symbol for today’s dressings, look for the expensive brands in the produce section, conveniently placed next to the salad greens. But tinkering with the recipe eventually resulted in bottled dressing that didn’t need to be refrigerated until it was opened.

And then the marketing geniuses behind the Rise of Ranch take shelf-stable one better and made packets of dry ranch ingredients that could be turned into dressing at home. (Clearly, they recognized the convenience and appeal of Good Seasons’ Italian dressing packets, conveniently sold with a cruet pre-marked with lines for oil, vinegar and water. No-fail dressing that said “homemade,” not purchased!)

But popular as ranch dressing became, it would probably have never become America’s #1 selling dressing if its marketers (let’s hope they’re all now living on their own private islands) hadn’t also begun selling ranch as a dip. A rich, creamy dip for everything from crudites to chicken wings. Dip and salad dressing, bottles and packets: Ranch overtook Italian to become America’s favorite dressing in 1992. As for Hidden Valley, the brand was purchased by Clorox in 1972. Let’s hope their bleach factories are far, far away from the dressing department.

But let’s return to the poor dethroned goddess. I still wondered why you’d make a green dressing without avocado, the obvious choice to turn a dressing green. The answer lies in the date when green goddess dressing was introduced: 1923. Although it originated in San Francisco, at the Palace Hotel, avocados has yet to make their way much farther north than L.A. by then; they were still a novelty North of the Border, unappreciated by most non-Hispanic citizens. Unattractive, bumpy fruits with slimy interiors? The market wasn’t, let’s just say, ripe.  

Not that adventurous chefs hadn’t been giving them a try. I have a 1919 copy of The Hotel St. Francis Cookbook. The chef at the hotel, also in San Francisco, features two recipes for avocado, the first calling it by a name some misguided marketer came up with based on its appearance: alligator pear. Eeeewww!!! I can bet that housewives everywhere were rushing out to buy them.

At any rate, the “Alligator pear salad” involved cutting ripe avocados in half, removing the pit, and filling each half with French dressing, then serving them on cracked ice. Or scooping out the avocado flesh, mounding it on lettuce leaves in a salad bowl, and covering it with French dressing.  This actually isn’t as hideous as it sounds, since for the chef, “French dressing” was a vinaigrette, not sweet, orangey glop, as he makes clear in the second recipe, “Avocado, French dressing:” “Split the avocado, remove the pit, and fill half full with a dressing made with salt, pepper, a little French mustard, and one-third vinegar and two-thirds olive oil.” This was clearly cutting-edge. Guacamole didn’t really come into its own in the U.S. until the 1970s. 

Longtime readers will know that I don’t give up on an idea easily, and by now, I had an avocado-based green goddess dressing on the brain. Avocado is oily enough to replace the original mayo in the recipe, but, to my mind, it still needs an allium punch. And clearly a mix of herbs is essential, even if you can’t find fresh tarragon and aren’t a fan of chervil. So I’m thinking half guac, half sour cream, with minced scallions (green onions), shallots, chives, and basil (for the licorice kick of the tarragon), lemon juice, lots of fresh-cracked black pepper, and Trocamare (hot herbed salt). More guac if it isn’t green enough, some crushed red pepper if it needs a little kick. A little fresh-squeezed OJ wouldn’t hurt, either.

Good? I’ll let you know after supper tonight.

              ‘Til next time,


Eat your avocado… leaves?! August 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Having once again succumbed to a new cookbook (cover your ears, Ben, and anyway, it was on sale), I made a rather startling discovery as I flipped through the colorful pages: apparently, avocado leaves are edible. The book, The Complete Mexican, South American & Caribbean Cookbook, included dried avocado leaves in several recipes, including one for refried beans, a favorite dish here at Hawk’s Haven.

Say what? Don’t tell me there’s actually a use for those homely hippie-hangover avocado houseplants grown from avocado pits?! And what on earth would avocado leaves taste like, anyway? The book, alas, provided no answers.

Turning to my good friend Google, I was directed to a most informative website, Gourmet Sleuth (www.gourmetsleuth.com), which devoted an entire page to avocado leaves. According to the site, the leaves, called hojas de aguacate, are harvested from a Mexican species of avocado, Persea drymifolia, and are used both fresh and dried in Mexican cuisine.

Gourmet Sleuth notes that the fresh leaves are used as a flavoring for tamales and made into a bed for barbecuing meats, and the dried leaves can be used in bean dishes, soups and stews. They point out that Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy recommends them as a substitute for hoja santa, aromatic leaves of another Mesoamerican plant (Piper auritum) that’s related to black pepper.

But what do the leaves taste like? Apparently, according to another Mexican food authority and famous chef, Rick Bayless, they taste sort of like a combination of bay leaves and aniseeds. In fact, he recommends substituting a mix of bay leaves and cracked aniseeds if you don’t happen to have avocado leaves on hand.

Wait a minute, I thought at this point, I have a couple of Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks in my collection. Let’s take a look in the horse’s mouth (so to speak). Pulling down The Tortilla Book, I saw to my surprise that not just the leaves, but even the skin and pit were edible: “The leaves… can be cooked with barbecues or tamales; or they can be lightly toasted, ground, and added to a pipian (a stew thickened with ground nuts or seeds) or fried beans. The skin of the small, black avocado grown in Mexico can be mashed with the flesh to give a rather special texture and anisey flavor. And… [you can let the pit] dry and grate a little of it into an enchilada sauce—as it is used in northern Mexico—but not too much, or the sauce will be quite bitter.” Who’d’a thunk?! In Mexican Regional Cooking, she adds approvingly that leaves of the popular ‘Fuerte’ variety “had a strong, rich flavor,” so if you live where these are grown and don’t have access to the Mexican avocado, bear this in mind. 

Gourmet Sleuth, via Diana Kennedy, also addressed rumors that avocado leaves were toxic. Apparently, this is based on a single report in which goats that consumed a large quantity of avocado leaves from an entirely different species, Guatemalan avocado (Persea americana), suffered toxic effects. Ms. Kennedy notes rather drily that it’s extremely unlikely that the quantity of avocado leaves used in recipes—the refried bean recipe in my book called for 4 or 5—would have any toxic effects, and that in any case, if you buy the dried leaves, they’re from the nontoxic Mexican species. I might add that you’d think if the leaves were toxic to humans, there’d be reports of Mexicans, not to mention Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Bayless, dropping dead after eating them, which has not been the case. In fact, according to Answers.com, “In Panamanian culture of the Azuero Peninsula, a tea is made from the leaves and used to treat high blood pressure.”

Having dealt with the sensational, let’s move on to the revolting. (Well, revolting to me, in any case; fans of agave-based liquors sold with dead “worms” floating in the bottles will be fine with this.) Also according to Gourmet Sleuth, when you harvest or buy avocado leaves, you’ll often find small galls on the underside, which, they assure us, are harmless and actually enhance the leaves’ flavor. That may be so, but galls are made by insects to house their larvae. Being vegetarian, I think I’ll pass, but thanks anyway.

If you want to try avocado leaves in your own cuisine, the site provides recipes, including enfrijoladas (tortillas in bean sauce), mixiote de pollo (spicy chicken packets), and pork loin with avocado leaves. Or you can add 4 or 5 dried, crushed or ground leaves to your next pot of refried beans and see what you think. There’s a trick to bring out the best flavor, though: dry-roast the dried leaves in a cast-iron skillet briefly just prior to crumbling or grinding them for use in your recipe. You can even order a supply of the dried leaves directly from the Gourmet Sleuth page.

Getting back to those dippy hippies and their homegrown avocado plants: Can you grow and eat your own? Well, apparently the ‘Hass’ avocado, the blackish-green, bumpy one you’d be most likely to buy in the grocery, is a hybrid that includes Guatemalan avocado in its background. While the leaves really wouldn’t be likely to harm you, they won’t be nearly as tasty as leaves from the Mexican avocado. And forget about getting fruit from those seed-grown plants, which pretty much will never bear in a container, since they reach great heights in nature (as in 69-foot-tall trees). And as all gardeners know, fruit from hybrid seeds never comes true.

All is not lost, however: Logee’s greenhouse (www.logees.com) sells an avocado plant that will bear fruit in a container. Their miniature variety, ‘Day’, is grafted so the fruit will be true to its parent, and it will begin setting fruit 2 or 3 years after you purchase a plant from them (for $39.95). Here’s what they have to say about it: “Plants will fruit at about 3 feet in height and will produce a medium-sized tapered-neck avocado that is easy to peel and has a delicious, buttery sweet taste. The fruit will hold on the plant for six months with ripening occurring from July to September.” (Avocados bloom in spring in the U.S.) Plants eventually reach 4 to 6 feet tall and can also be planted in the ground if you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 9 or warmer. In-ground or in a container, they require full sun.

That’s the good news for avocado fruit lovers. The bad news for avocado leaf lovers: ‘Day’ is a Persea americana, not a Mexican avocado (as is ‘Fuerte’, fyi). If anybody knows a source of Mexican avocado plants, please let us know! And ditto if you have a favorite recipe that uses avocado leaves.

            ‘Til next time,