We’ve just experienced our first heatwave, that sudden annual transition from “it could be warmer” to “man, can you believe how friggin’ hot it is already!?” The last thing anyone wants to do in this heat is cook, yet we still have to eat, even if a little lighter. What’s needed is some refreshing, satisfying food that doesn’t require an oven. Salads and chilled soups like gazpacho are good, but one of the best summer snacks is guacamole, it’s very fresh-tasting and quite filling. And, not to spoil it or anything, but it’s actually good for you, provided you don’t eat the whole bag of tortilla chips once the velvety green dip is gone.
Obviously, the key to making good guacamole is having avocados at a perfect stage of soft ripeness, but the timing of this can be tricky. I usually buy the mesh bags with five or six rather than the individual ones, it’s cheaper that way. They’re often hard as rocks in the store, so you leave them on the counter for a few days to ripen. If you squeeze them and they give and a small dimple is left, they’re ready. The trouble is, sometimes they’re ready when you don’t have time to make the guac and you end up leaving them too long and they get all black and mushy inside. My sister-in-law recently showed me a simple way around this: once the avocados are ripe, put them in the fridge. This stops the ripening process and has the added advantage of chilling the avocados, making the finished product even more refreshing.
I’ve been tinkering with making guacamole for years now and people are generally happy with the result, it usually disappears pretty fast. The most pleasant quality about avocados is their sensual and creamy texture; their taste to some is subtle, to others merely bland. The idea is to dress up the fruit with some other flavours without overpowering the delicacy of the avocados. Generally the other flavours are lime, cilantro, garlic, salt and something to provide a little heat – pepper and/or hot sauce. Here’s how I go about it, starting with what you’ll need:
A big cutting board, a sharp knife, a fork and spoon, a garlic press and a large bowl.
The essentials are: five ripe avocados, three cloves of garlic, fresh or bottled lime juice, cilantro (either fresh chopped or concentrate in a tube), salt, white pepper, a hot sauce of your choice, and olive oil.
The following are optional, but I generally use them: 1-2 green onions, a dash of Worcestershire sauce and either some diced tomatoes or a tomato-based salsa, mainly for colour.
Notice that, with the exception of the avocados and garlic, I haven’t included amounts or precise measurements. This is because I generally make food by feel and guacamole is a little bit different every time because of variables like the size of the avocados or how much you’re going to make. The idea is to add a little bit of each ingredient at a time and constantly taste for balance. This avoids too much of any one flavour, which is desirable.
I use a couple of shortcuts that may raise the eyebrows of purists, but life is short. I most often use bottled lime juice and cilantro paste from a tube because they’re always on hand and keep well in the fridge. Without question, freshly squeezed lime juice is better (and if you like things really limey, you can add some zest from the peel as well) but I don’t always have limes around, or sometimes they’ve gone stale. There’s nothing wrong with bottled lime juice, it will do the trick. As to the cilantro paste, it solves a lot of problems – no worries about it getting droopy, no bothersome chopping – its smooth texture actually works better with guacamole. And the flavour is fine, actually quite fresh. But be careful – remember, it’s a concentrate, so a little dab’ll do ya.
Start with the avocados, cutting each one down the middle lengthwise, then prying them apart. Remove the pit with a thumb and finger, reserving a couple of them – I’ll explain later. If the avocados are ripe enough, you should be able to slide your thumb between the skin and the fruit and have each half plop out of the skin easily. The empty skins look like little boats, but please resist the urge to save these for decorative serving purposes. I prefer my guacamole chunky rather than smooth, so here’s how I cut the avocados: place each half face down on the cutting board and slice lengthwise from the bottom up. Then cut across from the top to the bottom and do the same again lengthwise. You should be left with each half diced into fine cubes. Place these in the bowl and add a splosh of olive oil for viscosity. Mash and stir all this around using the back of a spoon; the result should be slightly smooth but mostly chunky.
Chop the ends off each clove of garlic and remove the skin. Using the press, crush each clove into the avocado mix and give it a good stir to distribute evenly. Add a generous squirt of lime juice (about half a lime’s worth or a half-tablespoon of juice), and a pinch of salt. If you’re using fresh cilantro, add about a tablespoon chopped; if you’re using the paste, add a blob that would cover the bristles of a toothbrush. Add a sprinkle of white pepper, which is wonderful stuff. It’s very fine, quite hot and has the advantage of being invisible, which is sometimes desirable, as here. Be careful though, it’s hotter than it looks. Add a dash or two of your favourite hot sauce – Tabasco or Frank’s Red Hot Original work quite nicely. Give everything a thorough stir to blend the flavours and taste some – it should be slightly tangy and fresh-tasting, with a touch of garlic underneath. At this point I usually find the mix needs a little more lime, cilantro, salt, or all three, so I carefully add a little of whatever seems shy. If the flavours or texture don’t seem homogeneous enough, add a dash of olive oil, it covers a multitude of sins.
Many people would be happy with the guacamole at this point, but I like to add the optional ingredients listed above. A couple of dashes of Wooster add some bite and the green onions add crunch and zing, especially if they’re very finely chopped. I also like the redness that diced tomatoes or a red salsa add to the overall green colour. If you prefer a milder guacamole, use the tomatoes – two or three cocktail, or six or seven cherry or grape ones will do nicely, finely diced with the seeds discarded. Because I like the tang and am fairly lazy, I often use a tomato-based salsa instead of tomatoes; even if I use tomatoes I usually add a bit of salsa. For local readers, PC (President’s Choice) makes a couple of good salsas which I would recommend – Smoky Chipotle, which is reddish-brown and more tangy than hot – and Original, which is bright red and has jalapenos so it’s a little spicier, but still reasonable. Each is very fresh-tasting and devoid of additives, a couple of tablespoons of either works nicely.
At this point give everything a thorough stir and try a spoonful. It should have a silky texture but still be chunky; the taste should be slightly nutty and tangy, without being too spicy or acidic. If anything seems short – lime or salt or whatever – add a pinch. Transfer the lot into an attractive, wide serving bowl and put the reserved pit(s) in the middle – I don’t know how or why, but I’m told they help keep the guacamole fresh longer. After you’ve finished trying some for “quality-testing purposes only” – but hopefully stopping short of eating all of it with a spoon – cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to cool, unless you’re going to serve it right away. There’s nothing like chilled guacamole to cool you off after a hot day.
I have no idea how my version stacks up against “authentic” guacamole, some purists may be rolling their eyes. I do know it’s far better than any commercially produced guac I’ve bought, and the equal of anything I’ve had in a restaurant. Outside of Mexico, that is; the Mexicans are pure geniuses at it. My “recipe” makes enough to serve three to five, but I’ve seen two hungry people (without mentioning any names of course) go through it. If I’m making it for a party, I double up on everything, while still using the “add gradually, stir and taste” method of flavouring. Obviously it’s served with tortilla chips for dipping – there are a million varieties, but after going to all this trouble it’s worth using quality ones that are not too salty. It’s also tasty as a side or condiment, slathered on top of various summer goodies. Good guacamole with chips can be a terrific appetizer, or half of a fulfilling meal in the summer – have it with a fresh salad or some cured meats, olives, various cheeses and the world is yours. And there’s no sweat involved, the whole process shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes.
There’s usually a jazz element to these articles, so……….
Some people like to pair food with wine, which I’m all for, though I usually find wine goes very well with itself and I certainly drink some while making guacamole. I like to pair food preparation with music – for example, if I’m cooking Italian, maybe some Sinatra or Joe Venuti or Guido Basso. With French, maybe some Django Reinhardt or Guy Lafitte. But if I’m making something like chili, gazpacho, or guacamole, some Hispanic or Latin music is nice, the rhythms help with the blending of the flavours. Cooking is supposed to be a party, even if it’s just you in the kitchen. I firmly believe that if you have fun while making food, it will come through in the taste of whatever you’re making and give it some zest.
There’s no shortage of Latin music to choose from – Cuban, Mexican, samba, bossa nova, Argentinian tango, Latin-jazz, etc. – the records and possibilities are endless. There’s an obscure one I’ve been enjoying lately, by an artist not generally associated with Latin music – Sonny Stitt. The album is STITT GOES LATIN, done for Roulette in 1963, with Thad Jones on trumpet, Chick Corea on piano, Larry Gales on bass, Willie Bobo on drums, Patato Valdes and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez on percussion. Basically, it’s Stitt playing straight-ahead bebop against a Latin beat, which sounds gimmicky and throw-away, but with musicians this great the results are anything but formulaic. Stitt is his usual gun-slinging self and Thad is arresting and angular as always, plus the rhythm is utterly authentic and grooving, as you would expect from the names involved. This was also Chick Corea’s first record date after moving to New York from Boston. He was just 22 but had already garnered a reputation for his stellar work in Latin bands; as you can hear from some of the things he rips off on the keys here, he was already a force to be reckoned with.
Hope you enjoy these clips from the album, first “Autumn Leaves”, then “Amigos” :
I’ll leave you now with a version of the song which inspired my title here, a pun introduced to me by Ted O’Reilly. It’s Sonny Rollins’ classic rendition of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”, from the musical “Finian’s Rainbow”. This is on Sonny’s first Blue Note album, with quite a band – Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly (fittingly, one of the great Irish pianists), Gene Ramey on bass and Max Roach on drums. It’s an early example of Sonny’s penchant for playing obscure, old-timey show tunes, one of his most endearing eccentricities.
Happy listening and happy eating….
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.