Food: Pressing the flesh

Annie Bell on the quest for perfect avocados. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I suppose if you were to make fun of South African food, you would probably start with their beloved braai. Actually, they are the first to rib themselves on this score; these barbecues are, after all, an embarrassingly meaty affair. Finding myself recently at a braai in the Eastern Transvaal, I was pleased to discover that beyond the avenue of 100-year old jacarandas, we were surrounded by 57 hectares of dark-green avocado orchards. Helping myself to a couple of skewers of chicken satay, I passed on the remainder of the carnivorous offerings and happily buried the rest of the plate in the pale creamy flesh of avos.

Now I would love to be able to tell you how, in the dawn light of the following morning, I wandered through an avocado orchard plucking perfectly ripe fruit warmed by the sun to eat for breakfast. But sadly there is no such thing as a ripe avocado on a tree. They only begin to relax into their silky compliant selves when they have been parted from the branch.

This brings us to the age-old problem for the avocado lover, namely, how to tell when they are ripe. After circumventing this problem with my host, Bill Blandon, first over a bottle of fine old Neederburg, then over some Pinotage and later in the evening over a deliciously sticky Muscat (he boasts a superb cellar of South African wines), we discussed it again in a state of sobriety the following day. But having come at it from every direction, we eventually conceded defeat. There is no solution.

There is, at best, a nifty little gadget to aid the farmer in measuring the density of the avocado, and this reveals how many days it will take to ripen. Roughly speaking, that is. In theory, the farmer can pack avocados of a similar temperament, into a box for transportation to the UK, or wherever else, knowing they will be sold during a certain period. So why is it that whenever you buy a pack of "ripe and ready to eat" avocados, there will be two ripe ones and two that are unripe? It seems that this is one of the laws of nature, and it is best not to look too closely at the problem but just to accept it. The nearest thing to a solution is to press your finger into the flesh to see how well it yields and hope that a million shoppers before you haven't done the same. Although I like the Hass variety with their dense nutty flesh best of all, those with thin skins are far more easily judged.

One variety I will be looking out for this summer is Edrinol, not as yet common over here, but starting to filter through. Cocktail avos, too, are very much better than the run- of-the-mill vegetable in miniature. Basically, it's a fruit that hasn't been fertilised; the avocado tree leads a curious existence of changing sex round about lunchtime.

One habit I picked up in the avocado groves of South Africa is a taste for avocados on toast. I have become exceptionally fond of half an avocado scooped on to a slice of toast and coarsely mashed with sea salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice around mid-morning. In the tropics, it is very welcome in the cool of breakfast time as well. The avocado, in theory, replaces butter (which is not to say you can't butter your toast as well).

Another habit I picked up over there, which unfortunately I can't sustain (as well as flying Virgin Upper Class) is a love of avocado oil, cold- pressed and glassy-green, a heavy oil that's luxurious beyond comparison. It's natural accompaniment, of course, is avocado, and the first time I made the crostini below it was with this gorgeously fragrant oil. Unfortunately, I have now run out. The South African consortium of growers is currently debating whether or not to start marketing this oil over here. My advice is: export now, think later.

Avocado, Roasted Red Onion, Feta and Chickpea Salad, serves 4

Salad

100g feta, broken into cubes

50g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

2 red onions

extra virgin olive oil

sea salt, black pepper

2 avocados

50g black olives, pitted

Dressing

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Place the chickpeas in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil, then drain and repeat, boiling them for two hours until they are very tender. Run cold water into the pan until they are cool and then drain them.

Heat the oven to 220C. Peel and halve the onions and slice about a quarter-of-an-inch thick into half-moons. Lay these out on a baking sheet. Drizzle very lightly with olive oil, season and roast them for 10-12 minutes until they are soft and coloured at the edges. Allow to cool. Whisk the balsamic vinegar with some seasoning and then add the oil.

To serve the salad, halve the avocados and remove the stone. Incise the skin into quarters and peel it off, then thinly slice the flesh. Arrange the avocado, onion, chickpeas and feta on individual plates and season with salt and pepper. Scatter with olives and spoon the dressing over.

Cucumber and Yoghurt Soup with Avocado, serves 4

This is chilled and green with the same cool appeal as a gazpacho.

Soup

1 green pepper

1 cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks

350ml yoghurt

150ml sour cream

2 large basil leaves

2 spring onions, trimmed and sliced

1/2 garlic clove

1 tsp caster sugar

sea salt, black pepper

To serve:

extra virgin olive oil

2 large slices white bread, crusts removed, and cut into 1cm dice.

1 avocado

squeeze of lemon juice

1 tbsp finely chopped chives

Heat the oven to 220C fan oven/ 230C or 450F electric oven/ Gas 8. Roast the green pepper for 15 minutes, by which time the skin should be blackened.

Place it inside a plastic bag, wrap this up and leave it to cool, then slip off the skin and remove the seeds, if necessary under running water. Liquidise all the ingredients for the soup together including the pepper. Pour into a jug, cover and chill for at least one hour.

In the meantime, make croutons by heating a few millimetres of olive oil in a frying pan. Once it is hot enough to surround a cube of bread with bubbles, add all the bread and cook tossing constantly until golden and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

Just before eating, halve the avocado and remove the stone. Incise the skin into quarters and remove it, and cut the flesh into long thin slices. Toss these in a bowl with a squeeze of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the chives and seasoning. Scatter the avocado and croutons over the soup, drizzling over some of the oil.

Avocado Crostini, serves 4

2 avocados

1 tbsp lime juice

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or macadamia oil, plus extra for toast

sea salt, black pepper

2 spring onions, trimmed and cut into thin strips 5 cm long

1 level tsp finely chopped red chilli

2 tbsp chopped coriander

1/2 punnet of mustard and cress

2 slices coarse-textured white bread, or cornmeal bread, halved

Halve the avocados and remove the stone. Incise the skin into quarters lengthwise, peel it off and cut the flesh into thin strips. Place these in a bowl and pour over the lime juice, olive oil and seasoning. Gently toss in the spring onions, the chilli, coriander and mustard and cress.

Toast the bread and drizzle over some olive oil or macadamia nut oil, pile the avocado salad partly over the toast

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