Saturday, December 29, 2012

Alligator Pears

It's pretty simple to see how avocados got the name alligator pears, but what's even more interesting is how the word avocado made it into the English language. Those of you who know me realize that I am somewhat of a geek. I think etymology is fascinating (my high school Latin teacher is smiling in heaven right now). Another passion, food history, fascinates me because food plays such a huge role in every culture, revealing much about its social and economic structure. Consequently, you'll find me telling stories about food throughout history.
Returning to avocados, it's generally believed the fruit originated in central Mexico; the oldest evidence found in a cave in Puebla, that dates back to 10,000 BC. (How could anyone not find that amazing?)  The word "avocado" comes from the Spanish aguacate which in turn comes from the Nahutl word ─ühuacatl; Nahutl is an ancient language of Central Mexico spoken by the Aztec, and the word translates to testicle, because of the shape of the avocado. The Aztecs also referred to it as "fertility fruit" which makes sense based on its meaning. The word avocado came from the Spanish word for advocate, which is a folk etymology, meaning it is a replacement of the original word that has nothing to do with the original meaning. That's it for history and etymology for now.....(Aren't you relieved?)

Growing up in a small town in northern Ohio in the 50's and 60's, avocados were nowhere to be found on our grocery shelves, but in 1973 when I was 19 I went on my hippie journey and lived on a small  communal farm just north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, but that's a whole story onto itself. My housemates introduced me to this most divine fruit, and I immediately fell in love with its subtle flavor and creamy texture. Fast forward to 2003 and I find myself living in the Avocado Capital of the World, the great claim to fame of Fallbrook, California, about 50 miles north of San Diego where the Mediterrean climate is perfect for cultivating avocados.

Kelli and I smiling for the camera
Photographer Bruce Jenkin, who recently moved his studio from Orange County to Fallbrook,  contacted me about a week ago to see if I'd be interested in styling some food shots using avocados to present to a prospective client. We decided on an omelet and a salad, so I showed up with my kit, three dozen eggs, a half dozen  avocados, and a few bags of fruits and vegetables. Bruce has an amazing studio with a chef's kitchen and a huge collection of food props that spans the walls of the studio. Kelli, his wife, selected a few items for us to look at on set and graciously volunteered to help me in the kitchen, which made for great company and lots of laughs. Kelli has a charming sense of humor and spending time with her s always a real pleasure.

Omelet with Cheddar Cheese, Multi-Colored Peppers, Mushrooms, and Avocado
After making a few omelets, I chose the "prettiest" and proceeded to drape it around a folded taco shell so it would hold its shape and give me more room for fillings.

Bruce and I went through the shots and selected our favorites, then on to salads.
The photo on the right is just me playing with my new iPhone, and the real beauty is Bruce's below. Because it looks so colorful and luscious, I thought I'd add the recipe.

 Salad with Avocados and Mandarin Orange Vinaigrette
Because I'm not one for following recipes exactly unless I'm baking, and salads can be composed with a handful of this and a sprinkling of that, consider this recipe as a guideline and play with as you like. To serve it as an entree for two, you can add sliced chicken breast.

Yield: about four servings or two entree servings

1 bag spring mix, 5 - 8 ounces
2 tangerines, satsumas, or mandarins; or 3 clementines; or 1 can of mandarin oranges drained
1 cup fresh blackberries
1/2 small red onion, sliced into thin rings
1 large avocado, sliced 

Tangerine Vinaigrette
1/3 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup tangerine (any type) juice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon honey or orange marmalade
Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients to blend well. Drizzle over salad.

Variations: now for the fun part: 
If you want to impart an Asian flavor add 1 - 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
For a smoky flavor add 1/2 - 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
For a spicy flavor add a dash to 1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle
For a Mexican flavor add 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
For a subtle Indian flavor add 1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

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