Ode to Avocados

Prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, avocados have been cherished since the early Aztecs first harvested the wild fruit over 10,000 years ago. While that’s an impressive history, proving its long term stating power, I’m disquieted to imagine any point in time that this most precious, indispensable stable didn’t exist. Rarely does a day pass without some form of avocado appearing on my personal menu, and often more than once. I hate to play favorites when there are so many incredible fresh finds out there… But I know avocado is the one I couldn’t live without.

Once the underdog of the produce world, avocados have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity only during the later half of the 21st century. Now ubiquitous, Americans alone account for over $2.6 billion in avocado sales annually. No wonder millennials can’t afford to buy houses anymore. The buttery flesh may be green, but it’s really worth it’s weight in gold.

As National Avocado Day looms ever nearer on July 31st, the whole event seems curiously redundant. Don’t we already pay out respects at the shrine of the ahuacatl more religiously than most conventional deities? I don’t really need to suggest a celebratory round of guacamole, as if it wasn’t the most serving suggestion in the book? Besides, you have a whole separate holiday to rock out with your guac out, on September 16th.

There’s no wrong way to eat an avocado. In fact, my favorite method is to scoop it right out of of shell with a spoon, gilded with tiny pinch of flaky salt over the top. If you’d like to pull out all the stops for this party and try something special, however, I do have a few more ideas that are sure to make any avocado lover swoon.

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Nuts About Summer Snacks

I received free samples of California Walnuts mentioned in this post. By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by California Walnuts and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

Snacks make the world go ’round. On the go or at home, it’s easier to eat lots of small bites to keep hunger at bay, rather than two or three big meals. No matter what’s on the agenda, smart snacks are necessary to power through the day. Few foods come close to the powerful nutrition contained within the humble walnut. Research suggests walnut consumption may be associated with improved cognitive function thanks to high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

That doesn’t mean that trail mix or raw nuts are the only options. This incredibly versatile nut is ideal for mixing seamlessly into all sorts of sweet and savory applications, or in this case, thoroughly coating some of summer’s best produce.

Unripe green tomatoes, firmer and tangier than their juicy red brethren, were born to be batter-fried. Fried green tomatoes are a time-honored southern staple that look like crispy gold coins and taste like a million bucks, too. Some use cornmeal, finely ground crackers, or breadcrumb for that gilded crunchy exterior, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to go a little bit nuts.

Pulverized walnuts create a completely gluten-free crust, further enhanced by aromatic herbs and spices. Though flavorful enough to satisfy cravings all by themselves, a dip into spicy remoulade sauce can really take these savory slices to the next level. That, too, is made from a creamy walnut base, demonstrating the full range of culinary potential locked inside each unassuming shell. Punchy paprika, horseradish, and hot sauce add flavor with firepower for a truly mouth-watering flavor sensation.

If a more substantial snack is called for, consider this the base for the most epic BLT ever. Replacing raw red tomatoes with fried green tomatoes adds heat and texture to this foolproof sandwich, and you can even use the remoulade instead of plain mayo. Piled high on soft slices of bread with crisp lettuce and umami meatless bacon, each bite is pure summertime brilliance. Now that’s a real snack with both brains and beauty.

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Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking

Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.

Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.

Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.

Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.

Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.

Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.

Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.

Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.

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Divine Intervention

Said to taste so heavenly that one bite could make the angels sing, divinity is an ethereal confection that looks the part, too. Fluffy billowing masses with crisp exteriors, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the entire platter were to float away. Somewhat of a cross between nougat, marshmallows, and meringue, it’s a specialty of the south, strongly associated with the holiday season. Divinity is a snow-white treat that always tastes like a celebration.

Recreate the magic of Christmas in July, if only for one brief, sweet moment. This past winter was one of solitary, subdued merriment, which makes the time ripe for an early revival. Gather up your friends and family, build sandcastles rather than snowmen and ride surfboards rather than sleds, and always bring along a sweet gift that comes straight from the heart.

Divinity is incredibly versatile, ideal for dressing up or down according to your whims. Try adding peppermint or almond extract, swapping the pecans for walnuts, pistachios, or coconut flakes, and let out your inner artist to decorate with any sort of sprinkles or edible glitter as your culinary paint. The candy does begin to set very quickly, so for your first attempt, it may be easier to simply spread the whole batch out flat on a sheet pan and slice it into squares.

Deck the halls with flip flops and crank the AC; there’s never been a better time to embrace the holiday spirit!

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Meant To Be Broken

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If it already is broken, it might not need fixing in the first place.

Broken rice (Cơm Tấm) is intentionally fractured, not defective. Once upon a time, in the earliest days of milling and manufacturing, it did begin life as the cheaper alternative to pristine long rice, though that’s no longer the case. In fact, it can command a premium price, especially overseas where it’s harder to find. Stumbling upon it randomly while perusing the endless aisles at MT Supermarket, I knew I hit the jackpot.

Contrary to the negative implications that might be associated with a “broken” item, it’s just as nutritious as any other whole grain. In fact, it has the added benefit of cooking more quickly due to the shorter, fragmented pieces.

If you think regular white rice is a brilliant blank canvas for soaking in flavorful sauces, just wait until you break this party up; impossibly porous, this segmented cereal drinks in every last drop like an edible sponge. Soft, sticky, tender yet toothsome, you get the best of all textures in every bite.

You could enjoy it in any other short grain rice recipe for a change of pace, though it’s most popular in Vietnam as street food. Flanked by pork chops, fried egg, meatloaf, pork skin, and sweet fish sauce, you would be hard pressed to find a dish any less vegan.

Rather than attempting to twist this dish into something utterly unrecognizable to accommodate my demands, I was inspired to break up with tradition and try a fresh approach.

Fragrant, subtly sweet, delicate and supple, this exquisite cracked cereal shines with a gentle approach to seasoning. Slightly nutty, warm and toasted, yet also bright and floral with hints of citrus, it’s already quite a prize cooked only in plain water. It would be a grave disservice to the grain if such a wealth of flavor was obscured. Thus, I merely accentuated the natural complexities locked within, adding a touch of sugar, salt, and a few drops of lemongrass oil. Butterfly pea tea (“blue matcha”) provides a bold blue hue, but the rich palate of flavors outshines even that vibrant veneer.

Serve with ripe mango, papaya, peaches, coconut, or any fresh fruit, really. Feel free to experiment! You can’t mess this one up; it’s already broken.

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