Tag Archives: Avocado

Nicaraguan guacamole

The summer I spent in Nicaragua as a teenager, working on a volunteer project, I spent a lot of time in people’s kitchens. I’d only recently been bitten by the cooking bug, and it seemed somehow that every woman in the community I was living in was an excellent cook. (With the exception of my host father–a former restaurant chef–every cook I met was female.) I spent a lot of time peering over the shoulders of these brisk, sandal-clad women, watching as they prepared the afternoon and evening meals. I learned how to fry plantains, how to mix rice and beans in just the right proportions to make gallo pinto, how to shred cabbage for a vinegary slaw that we ate on top of fat masa cakes. But the thing that surprised me the most was how the Nicas made guacamole.

I only had it once, in the home of a woman I didn’t know very well. She’d just finished showing my volunteer partner and me how to form tortillas by hand–a skill I’ve sadly since forgotten–and told us she would make us some guacamole to have with our lunch. There were avocado trees everywhere in town, and we ate enormous ripe avocados every day with a spoon and a sprinkle of salt, but no one had ever offered to make us guacamole before. After a few minutes of slicing and chopping, she presented us with a bowl: in it was a chunky mix of avocado cubes, onion slices, and smooth rounds of hard-boiled egg. “Es el guacamole Nica,” she said. It was absolutely unlike any guacamole I’d ever had, and the flavors wrestled around strangely in my mouth. I felt very far from home. I finished my portion, thanked her profusely, and then for the rest of the summer we ate half-avocados with salt.

nica guacamole

I hadn’t thought about that guacamole until last weekend, when avocados showed up at the farmer’s market. I went shopping with my friend Molly, and she was craving guacamole. We agreed that it might be fun to try recreating that strange and startling guacamole I’d had over a decade ago. All we needed was an onion, an avocado, a few eggs, and some limes. I wasn’t expecting much–it seemed way too simple to be exciting. But when I took a bite, the memory hit me square between the eyes. Suddenly I was back in that Nica kitchen, shy and out of my element, taking the spoonful offered to me.

And something else happened, too. Suddenly, tasting with a teenager’s emotions and an adult’s palate, I realized just how delicious Nicaraguan guacamole is. The flavor is clean and sharp, with a bit of welcome chewiness from the egg and a prick of pungent sweetness from the onion. This will absolutely be my go-to guacamole recipe from now on–it’s that good.

The traditional recipe is dead simple: avocado, onion, hard-boiled egg, lime, and salt. I added some scallion tops and cilantro, just because we had them around, but these are neither traditional nor necessary, and the guacamole is great without them. You can mash the avocado to whatever texture you like, but for a real authentic guacamole, keep it chunky, almost like a salad. That way, the squishy avocado, chewy egg, and crunchy onion each have their say.

nica guacamole 2

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Chard avocado salad and pickled chard stems

I’ve always thought of chard as a winter food, but that’s not strictly true. Even now, in the sticky heat of July, chard is everywhere at the farmer’s market, all vibrantly colored and adorably bunched. So I decided to play around with chard as a summer vegetable, and stumbled on a couple surprisingly grill-friendly side dishes. With Fourth of July coming around the bend, these would definitely be welcome at any barbecue.

First, a salad. I stole this idea from my friend Isabel, who uses mashed avocado and lemon juice as a dressing for thinly sliced kale. I’m not a huge fan of raw kale, but wondered whether something similar might work with chard instead. The answer is a resounding yes: the buttery avocado smooths the bitterness of the raw greens, mellowing them into something soft and juicy and oddly addictive. Add a few flecks of sweet shallot and a little spicy raw garlic, and you’ve got a killer salad. It’s like a fresher, lighter version of the braised collard greens that so often sit alongside good Southern barbecue. In fact, Sam and I agreed that this would be fantastic as a side to a hunk of grilled meat.

This is a little more involved than your average salad, because it involves massaging the greens. I’d never done this before, and I’ll grant you, it feels a little odd: you coat the chopped greens with a glug of oil, and then knead them aggressively with your hands until they start to break down and soften. It really is like massaging, in a way–imagine you’re giving someone a deep-tissue shoulder rub, but that someone happens to be a bowl of greens. After a few minutes of kneading, the greens turn slippery and soft, and lose a lot of their initial bitterness. They start to taste like salad greens, juicy and dark and just a touch bitter. It seems like a fussy step, but it really does make the difference between inedible health-food salad and creamy, delicious summer-in-a-bowl salad.

Oh, and if you don’t want to use chard, kale would of course work here–as would collard greens, for that matter.

chard avocado salad

Once the salad was consumed, I had a handful of bright red stems left over. I’m a sucker for using the whole chard, and I’ve been craving pickles something fierce. So the stems got thinly sliced into matchsticks, then tossed with a bunch of similarly-cut scallions. I decided to flavor this batch of pickles with garlic, thyme, tarragon, and bay, so those went into the bottom of a jar. Then I packed the jar with stems and scallions, poured over a simple brine, and popped on a lid. In a couple of hours, I had some seriously addictive fridge pickles.

These are a little unusual-tasting, but they’re terrific. The chard stems are fibrous and crisp, like celery, with a faint beetlike sweetness that plays perfectly with the puckery brine. The scallions lose their harshness but keep their quiet oniony essence. The herbs are subtle but pervasive, so that every bite is infused with woodsy flavor. I could easily imagine these scattered over a hot dog or sausage, or even as an accompaniment to a big greasy cheeseburger.

The one slight bummer is that the pickles don’t stay pretty for long; over the course of a few days, the chard slowly gives up most of its color to the brine. For red chard, that means you’ll end up with pale pink pickles in a red brine. They’ll still taste great, though.

pickled chard stems and scallions

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Avocado crab salad

When it comes to flavor combinations, food people love to talk about “matches made in heaven.” There must be thousands of them–pairs of foods that, when combined, produce something mysteriously greater than the sum of their parts. Some pairs are well-known, shouted from rooftops, loudly and eloquently beloved. Peanut butter and banana! Strawberry and rhubarb! Mushrooms and sage! Pumpkin and cinnamon! Chocolate and chili! Chocolate and hazelnut! Chocolate and coffee!

Then there are the pairs that we sort of forget about, until they saunter up side-by-side and slap us on the chin. Like crab and avocado.

Every time I eat avocado and crab together, I’m freshly amazed at how well they get along. Something about the creamy, fruity richness of the avocado makes it an ideal pair for sweet stringy crab. Not long ago, I had a salad at a business lunch that reminded me, again, of how great they are together. Like most of my crab-and-avocado encounters, it kept the two separate: a pile of crabmeat, a fan of avocado slices, lettuce, and vinaigrette. No more than that. I ate, and my eyes rolled back in my head a little, and I made up my mind not to let the combination slip my mind again.

From there, I started thinking about a different kind of crab salad, the picnic and barbecue kind, bound together with mayonnaise and flecked with tiny vegetable bits. What if I replaced the mayonnaise with avocado? Would that even work?

The short answer is, yes. Absolutely. A perfectly ripe avocado, mashed ferociously with a whisk, makes a fine mayonnaise substitute, and infuses every bite of the crab salad with buttery flavor. I tossed in the chopped-up leftover vegetables from my gazpacho experiment, and spiked the whole thing with plenty of hot sauce. (Next time, I think I’ll use a green pepper rather than red, for more of a bitter bite against the rich avocado and sweet crab.) The salad tasted like a crabby guacamole, and cried out to be piled onto tortilla chips. I can only imagine how terrific this would be at a backyard barbecue in the summertime, with plenty of cold drinks and good friends close at hand.

avocado crab salad

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