Use versatile avocados in all kinds of dishes, such as this Avocado, Turkey and Brie Panini. (Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT) - MCT

It's avocado season in our neighbor's yard

Excluding foods outside the boundaries of your backyard or area farms is a hollow exercise in seasonal eating. Welcoming a nearby growing region's specialty crop at the height of harvest — such as California avocados — shows true sympathy with seasonality.

March is our southern neighbor's season for Hass avocados, widely considered the tastiest. Avocado lovers whet their appetites in fall on Florida's Fuerte, hit their stride in midwinter on Mexico's Hass and occasionally fill in from Chile and Peru with hit-or-miss results.

You'd be hard-pressed, though, to derive the difference from grocers' produce sections, where mainstays hold sway season in and season out. What would shoppers do, after all, without the continuous availability of avocados, potatoes or tomatoes?

I won't purchase potatoes for months when I have my own, either in the garden or stored in the pantry. I've become so spoiled by summer tomatoes that I can't abide them any other time.

But avocados, for several reasons, are among my few concessions to year-round consumption. First and foremost, the thick-skinned avocado is a good traveler — even across the globe — and a good keeper when stored at cold temperatures. They can hang on the tree for months before being picked and, fortunately for farmers and retailers, ripen off the tree.

Thick skins also shield avocados from pesticides, explaining their high ranking among "cleanest" foods examined by consumer groups. Even without this distinction, there is just no substitute for avocado.

Whereas many vegetables are virtually interchangeable — mash sweet potatoes instead of russets; stir-fry cauliflower instead of broccoli — the avocado has no peer. It's a fruit that plays like a vegetable, with a smooth texture and natural, healthful fats that lend richness to otherwise light dishes. Avocados, like nuts, have a way of curbing calorie cravings that few plant-based foods can.

If there wasn't flavor to recommend it, the avocado would remain a versatile ingredient, lending itself to mashing for dips and spreads — perhaps as a mayonnaise substitute. It can be sliced into salads, diced into salsas, scattered over fusion dishes or traditional tacos. It even can be pureed for a smoothie or whipped into dairy-free "ice cream."

Fittingly, this native of South and Central America always is better with a squeeze of lime or sprinkling of dried chili.

But while good avocados almost rival bacon for savoriness, bad ones are practically inedible — stringy, discolored and slightly musty. Inferior avocado flesh clings to the pit instead of cleanly separating. Whether these faults lie with cultivation, the rigors of transportation or prolonged storage, it's clear that a few months of each year do not favor avocados.

Happily, this is not one of them. And Oregon's proximity to California makes avocados nearly local.

Foods that travel shorter distances are not only fresher but use fewer resources. Eat produce in season, close to where it was grown, and there's a higher likelihood of diversity. Many noncommercial avocado varieties are available on a limited basis for a short time in certain areas of California, says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op.

"When the avocados came in March, it was a feast," recalls the former resident of California's central coast.

For your own feast, do what true avocado aficionados do: slap slabs of it between slices of bread. I've never managed to develop a taste for the avocado sandwich that California natives seem to love so much. But when I do put avocado on a sandwich, it's got to be simple. Just meat and cheese will do. No lettuce, no onion and — certainly, if not in season — no tomato.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

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