Califonia Bountiful

Avocado adventures

May/June 2020 California Bountiful magazine

California fruit wins fans with flavor and versatility




Fresno chef Matthew Moore has been an avocado fan since age 14. He and his fellow chefs at Painted Table catering company have developed creative presentations such as avocado panna cotta served with ahi tuna. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Matthew Moore is obsessed with the avocado—an "inexpensive luxury," as he calls it.

Moore, chef de cuisine at Fresno caterer Painted Table, goes out of his way to use California avocados when they're in season—and not just in guacamole. Moore's lineup includes an avocado crema flavored with sour cream, fresh lime juice and cilantro.

"You can put it on a taco, you can put it in a soup, you can put it with some pork belly," he said. "It kind of goes with anything."

For those seeking vegan desserts, Moore makes a chocolate mousse with avocado. He says his avocado panna cotta with ahi tuna crudo is a favorite appetizer among his customers. Inspired by the Italian dessert custard, Moore purees avocados with ingredients including wasabi powder, flavored water and jalapeños, and dollops it alongside paper-thin slices of ahi.

Like enthusiastic avocado fans everywhere, Moore's customers can't seem to get enough of the fruit, which hits its peak in California from April to August.


Arby Kitzman grows avocados near Morro Bay. Photo: © 2020 Richard Green

Labor of love

California farmers provide about 90% of the nation's production, according to the California Avocado Commission. That's because conditions here are ideal to produce superior avocados. The trees crave rich soil, plenty of warm sun and ocean breezes to keep scorching heat at bay.

According to the commission, only 1% of California's land meets these unique conditions, stretching along the coast from Monterey to Mexico. Ventura and San Diego counties lead the pack in farming the state's 47,000 acres of avocado groves.

It's work that requires patience, as it can take 14 to 18 months for a single avocado to mature on the tree. The fruit grows year-round and is in peak season from spring through summer, maturing as early as April and harvested as late as October, depending on the region.

Arby Kitzman has been at the painstaking work for 40 years, farming roughly 10 acres of avocados in Morro Bay. It all started when Kitzman, whose previous career involved selling soft-water systems, made an old-fashioned swap with a friend who grew avocados.

"I traded him a water softener and a reverse osmosis unit, and he planted 250 trees for me," Kitzman said.

He's not just a farmer—he's also a fan of the creamy, rich fruit. One of his favorite ways to enjoy avocados is to make a salad dressing out of mashed avocado, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Like more than 3,000 other avocado farmers in California, Kitzman meticulously cares for his trees and picks fruit at its peak. California avocados make the journey from tree to table in a matter of days, meaning customers reaching for avocados with the California label can be assured of the freshest possible fruit.

"We just love it. I love the life," said Kitzman, who's now 80. "I'm out in the grove a lot. I can't do as much of the heavy work as I used to do, but I'm still very much involved in the day-to-day operation."


California-grown avocados star on Moore's menu throughout the season. Avocado gazpacho is a cool treat on a summer day. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Out of one, many

California doesn't just grow exceptional avocados. The state is also the birthplace of one of the market's favorite varieties: the Hass.

Commercial avocado cultivation began in California about a century ago, and by 1920 the green-skinned Fuerte was the state's most popular variety, according to Mary Lu Arpaia, a University of California horticulturalist who works with avocados at a UC research center in Parlier.

Then, in the mid-1920s, a man named Rudolph Hass planted several avocado seeds in his backyard in La Habra Heights, near Los Angeles. One of the resulting trees was different: It produced bumpy, black-when-ripe fruit with a rich, nutty flavor that people seemed to love. Every Hass tree today is descended from this accidentally discovered "mother tree."

It was fairly recently—in the 1960s and '70s—that the Hass really took off, Arpaia said, with an explosion of plantings in Escondido, Valley Center and other regions where the Hass could tolerate warmer weather better than the Fuerte. The Hass now accounts for 96% of California avocado production.

But a new variety may be poised to make a splash. It's called the GEM—after UC researcher Gray E. Martin, who helped develop it. It was patented by UC in 2003. GEM resembles Hass in eating quality, Arpaia said, and proves hardier than Hass in handling the heat. It's already making its way into California avocado groves, on the coast and in the San Joaquin Valley.

"Growers are always looking for opportunities," Arpaia said. "If an opportunity arises and GEM looks like it's doing well (in the valley), you will see rapid expansion."

Expanding cultivation to California's warmer Central Valley could result in an extension of the California avocado season, leading shoppers to find California-grown avocados in stores as early as November.


Preparing avocados on the grill "adds a great smokiness" to the fruit, Moore says. Photo/Shutterstock

Avocados on the barbie

A longer avocado season would be music to chef Moore's ears. During peak California season, he features the ingredient on his menu nonstop. The fruit's famously heart-healthy fats add the richness that food needs to be satisfying, he said.

"Avocado is just something that I think resonates with people when they see it on something," Moore said. "It makes them want to try it even more when they see it."

Moore has been cooking nearly his entire life, first stepping into the kitchen with his grandmother at age 5—and he sets big goals for himself and his kitchen crew. One of them is firing up the grill and testing new ways of cooking the fruit.

"I really love barbecued avocado," Moore said. "I think it adds a great smokiness to it."

Recently, he's been experimenting with two different methods. One involves slicing an avocado, removing the pit, seasoning the fruit with olive oil, salt and pepper, and laying it on a hot grill. The other approach requires peeling the skin off the fruit, wrapping it in foil, and barbecuing in hot embers for four to six hours.

Moore said he enjoys going to farms but has yet to visit an avocado grove. But if he wants to see a tree, he can just go to the backyard. Yes, the avocado-obsessed chef has his very own avocado tree.

"You take a pit and you put three toothpicks in it," Moore said. "Put it in a shot glass, a little water, let it sprout and go plant it outside."

It's as though he has a piece of the state at his fingertips—California, boiled down to a small, green fruit.

"I think avocados are a really good definition of our state," Moore said. "It's California personified. It really defines us as a food culture, because we have some of the best products."

Kevin Hecteman

Recipe

Avocado gazpacho


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