Ripe for the Pickin’

My Rouses Everyday, September/October 2017

Avocados are having a moment.

From fantastical, photographic, hashtagged caprices on Instagram to the springing up of “avocado toast” on menus coast to coast and appearances on countless “top ten nutritional superfoods” lists; from moving past guacamole to being the featured ingredient in such dishes as soup (chilled, mostly, but occasionally hot), salads, bowls, sandwiches galore, smoothies, green drinks and milkshakes, even dessert — puddings! pies! ice cream! — the avocado is right smack dab in the middle of its 15 minutes of fame.

If you want proof, go to Brooklyn, New York, the borough felt by many (certainly its residents) to be the epicenter of hip, where the Avocaderia, “the world’s first avocado bar … for your indulgence, for your well-being,” is located. You can start with a “Chill out” (avocado on multigrain bread, with chili flakes), groove to “Beets & blue” (an avocado mash salad with beets, arugula, blue cheese and arugula), have a smoked salmon “Avoburger” for your main course, and conclude with an Avocado “chocolate mousse.” Who could ask for more … except those who might like a little less.

And yet, if avocados are having a moment, one is tempted to ask, what’s time to an avocado? After all, remains found in what is modern-day Peru carbon-date the avocado to nearly 15,000 years of age. At that point, avocados were wild, gathered by our forebears in frost-free, subtropical climates throughout Central America and into present-day California. But after about 10,000 years of gathering avocados (which are, by the way, members of the laurel family, which also contains such culinary stars as bay leaf and cinnamon), human beings said, “Enough is enough,” and started growing the fruit themselves.

Either way, that’s an awfully long time and distinguished history for something that’s ending up in the preciously named “Quinoa & friends” (another Avocaderia offering, with fashionable ingredients du jour: avocados with kale, fennel and quinoa — cooked and puffed quinoa, no less).

Surely avocados deserve less trendiness.

But there is one way that the avocado embodies the essence of timeliness. That is in the fruit’s silky ripeness. Creamy, buttery-smooth, tender, unctuous, a pale yet vivid and seductive shade of green; whether you eat it sweet or savory; smooth or chunked; in salad, soup, sandwich or smoothie; there is no mistaking a ripe avocado’s rich, one-of-a-kind perfection.

With avocados, ripeness is everything. And the moment between unripe and overripe, the window of time in which avocado perfection is reached but not yet gone, is brief, as was well-stated in a sign I once saw by a bin of avocados: not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet, now, too late — the Avocados

Let us consider these three phases:

The Not Yet Avocado: Unready

  • How to Identify It: Place the avocado in your palm and squeeze the fruit gently. Avocado in this phase is rock-hard; throw one at someone’s head and you could cause serious damage. If it is a Hass, the most common commercial avocado variety, you’ll also get a visual clue: the unripe avocado’s slightly pebbly skin is a dark but recognizable green.
  • What It’s Like: An unripe avocado is difficult to cut open and resists being separated from its peel or having its pit removed. Which is just as well; the under-ripe avocado’s texture is hard, unyielding and very disappointing in flavor — the characteristic creamy avocado taste is faint, replaced by a mild but unpleasant bitterness.
  • What to Do About It: If you have a hard avocado, do not cut it open. Wait! It will ripen, depending on how hard it is, in two to four days. If you need to speed up the ripening process, place hard avocados in a paper or canvas bag (something that does not let in light) with a couple of bananas and/or apples. The ethylene gas the fruits emit will speed the ripening remarkably, cutting the wait in half.

The Now Avocado: Ready

  • How to Identify It: Place the avocado in your palm and squeeze the fruit gently. If the avocado is in this phase, it will give, just a little, yielding gracefully to pressure. Ah! This is what you want. Again, if it is a Hass, you’ll have a visual: The ripe avocado’s skin is no longer bright green but a very purplish-black, with green undertones.
  • What It’s Like: Here is the creamy, tender, platonic ideal. The texture is like butter when it’s barely at room temperature, the flavor incomparable: a nutty-buttery, savory-sweet taste. Sure, you can fancy it up in a million ways, but with a sprinkle of coarse salt and spritz of lime or lemon, it is scrumptious eaten straight from the skin (minus the pit, of course) with a spoon.
  • What to Do About It: Score the peel vertically, pressing the knife in until it reaches the pit and rotating it in your hand. Then, take the avocado in two hands and twist lightly. The two halves will come apart smoothly (you can’t do this maneuver if it’s underripe). Remove the pit. Slide your thumb (or a spoon) along one end, between the skin and the flesh, and push forward. Out will come that nice, perfectly ripe avocado half. Prepare in any way you like.

The Too Late Avocado: Non-Negotiably Past Its Prime; You Blew It

  • How to Identify It: Place the avocado in your palm and … well, you won’t even have to squeeze; these avocados are soft and mushy. Again, with a Hass, you can verify this visually: the skin, loose in places and not nicely plumped out, is now black, not purplish-black.
  • What It’s Like: Such avocados, sadly, are mushy, not creamy; the satiny green smoothness that was (for what seemed a fleeting moment) ripened perfection has given way to a stringy-textured, brownish-red-veined flesh that is fibrous, unpleasant texturally, and with little or none of the characteristic creamy flavor. There may also be brown “gooshy.”
  • What to Do About It: Maybe, just maybe, if the avocado is only a tiny bit beyond its prime, you can cut out the brown spots and salvage some of the rest. But forget it if you see any of the veins. Know that, next time, you need to remember that that avocado, though the process was not visible, was doing what it was supposed to do — ripening right there in the bag with the bananas and apples.

The avocado is, like Goldilocks’ three bears, a triad where only one choice is “just right.” But unlike in Goldilocks, where perfection was relative (“too big” and “too small” and “just right” being sized to her), avocados are more instructive in their lesson: underripe, ripe or overripe. “Strike when the iron is hot,” we say, though few of us forge iron — and if we did, we would know that the iron could be reheated, if necessary. But with an avocado, there is no do-over, and ripe is not a relative condition.

Thus, though the avocado may be having its moment in the sun, it is always both timeless and timely. It will generously bring forth its fruit in tropical places, for as long as we have a world. Yet each of those fruits will have one particular moment, a moment perhaps 12 hours long, in which its perfect ripeness speaks to and satisfies our cravings perfectly.

In this, an avocado tells us: Don’t wait. Be here now. Carpe diem. An avocado tells us: I am ready. An avocado says: Please eat me.

May we listen (and not only where avocados are concerned). May we squeeze gently, and know ripeness when we see, feel and taste it.