In Season: Avocado
by: L.E BASKOW, A salad at Pambiche is stocked with California avocados. Chef John Connell-Maribona says he sent back avocados from Chile — they just weren’t as good.

Avocados grow in California, surrounded by high-voltage security fences. They're a valuable crop, and one that, unfortunately, took a severe hit from an unusual blast of Arctic air this January.

California avocado growers experienced a loss of 27 percent of their crops due to the freeze, according to Tom Bellamore, a spokesman for the California Avocado Commission. That's a loss of approximately 100 million pounds of fruit, valued at about $100 million. That's quite a blow to farmers.

It's a blow to consumers, too. Even in a good year, avocado lovers don't have it easy. Avocados are never cheap. They don't travel well. And frankly, they're just kind of weird.

Who ever heard of a fruit with a high fat content? Who wants to eat something that's green and mushy? You can still find people in the East and Midwest who are highly suspicious of this equatorial delicacy.

Wild avocado trees originated in south-central Mexico. There is evidence that Incans began cultivating the trees as early as 750 B.C., but it wasn't until the 1800s that the first avocado trees were introduced to the United States.

In the early 1900s, avocado growers began actively attempting to breed different varieties, trying to improve the fruit's commercial possibilities. Eventually, the Hass avocado, patented in 1935, became favored by a majority of growers for its fine texture, relatively long shelf life and nearly year-round growing season.

Another advantage of the Hass is that its skin goes from green to purplish-black as it matures, making it easier to judge ripeness.

A single tree can produce as many as 500 avocados a year, although 150 is more usual. Sadly, they do not grow in Oregon. Avocados from Mexico and Chile should make up the bulk of what was lost in California, but some quality can be lost in transit, and prices have gone up.

Price worth it for chef

When the California avocado crisis first struck, John Connell-Maribona, the chef and owner of the Cuban restaurant Pambiche (2811 N.E. Glisan St., 503-233-0511), says his produce distributor tried to sell him some Chilean avocados. He sent them back.

'There's a huge difference,' he says, so he insisted on fruit from California, despite the spike in price: 'California avocados are by far the superior product, so we just pay.'

Connell-Maribona makes a delicious ensalada de aguacate, which is simply big chunks of avocado in a sour orange vinaigrette.

'It's our most popular salad,' he says, estimating that in total, the restaurant uses more than 100 avocados a day. Prices have been fluctuating wildly, he says, settling at around a 10 percent or 15 percent increase over last year. He will, reluctantly, be raising his menu price.

Of course, the classic avocado dish is Mexican guacamole. As Connell-Maribona points out, however, avocados appear in a range of cuisines. He likes the Cuban version of guacamole, which includes chunks of pineapple.

Vietnamese restaurants often sell creamy avocado milkshakes. Japanese restaurants incorporate avocado into sushi.

And then there's a true original of Portland cuisine, the intoxicating avocado daiquiri served by Lucy Brennan at Mint and 820 (816 N. Russell St., 503-284-5518), her restaurant-bar duplex.

Don't leave 'em to rot

Avocados are healthy, if high in calories (at least for a fruit). A single avocado has around 275 calories, according to the California Avocado Commission. Avocados are a good source of unsaturated fat, which can improve your cholesterol count, and they contain a variety of nutrients.

When you buy avocados in Oregon, they usually are firm rather than soft and ripe. They ripen quite well in a paper bag, at room temperature, over two or three days.

The drawback to this process is that it's really easy to forget about them until they turn to black mush. To avoid this, I write 'Avo!' in big letters on the outside of the bag, and as a further precaution, I intentionally set the bag on a part of the counter where it will be in my way, so I notice it frequently.

It can be a somewhat rocky road to getting your hands on that perfect avocado - this year more than most - and when you do, you might want to protect it with a security fence of your own.

Avocado salmon salad

• 1/4 cup Meyer lemon juice (from one and a half or two lemons)

• 1 teaspoon honey

• salt and pepper to taste

• 1/2 cup olive oil

• 1/2 pound wild salmon, cooked, cool

• 1 ripe avocado

• 1/8 cup very thinly sliced red onion

• 1/2 head red leaf lettuce

Whisk honey, salt and pepper into lemon juice until honey is dissolved. A little at a time, whisk in olive oil. Set aside.

Use leftover salmon or cook this small piece to taste. When it is cool, chunk it into pieces with a fork. Add the red onion. Cube the avocado and add. Pour the dressing over to coat and toss gently.

Line a medium-size bowl or two small bowls with torn red lettuce leaves. Top with the avocado mixture and serve.

Serves two.

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