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A Stuffed Avocado for Every Century

All it takes is a few moments scrolling Pinterest or browsing the recipe section of a fitness magazine to spot a stuffed avocado. Halved and pitted avocados are literal catchalls for savory fillings of canned tuna, chicken salad, poached shrimp, baked eggs, and fluffy quinoa that span the health diet spectrum from keto to paleo, Whole30, gluten-free, and vegan. In its simplest form, the avocado is a fresh, bright green, raw bowl with a chameleon-like ability to swap itself in as the “healthy” version of everything from the tortillas used for tacos to the rice used for sushi. However they are prepared, stuffed avocados are a pop-culture panacea.

For some, the ubiquitous stuffed avo might read as a revival of a retro delicacy—like the lobster salad–filled avocado at 1920s-era decadent dinner parties. But for me, the stuffed avocado has always brought me back to my native Peru, where it’s called “palta rellena.” Across Lima, restaurants serve palta rellena as a piqueo (small bite). When I was a kid, my mother enjoyed preparing a chicken salad version during warm summers. She would slice avocados in half lengthwise, pit them, and stuff them with pulled poached chicken mixed with mayonnaise, chopped red onion and celery, and green peas. Then she’d garnish it all with parsley. I remember it as cold, creamy, crunchy, and refreshing.

It turns out that this simple dish has a complex colonial past that begins with its name. Avocados are originally from Mexico and Central America, and the etymology of “aguacate” is “ahuácatl,” the name for the fruit in the indigenous Náhuatl language. That’s the root of various derivations around the world: “avocado” in English, “avocat” in French, and “abacate” in Portuguese. Why, then, is it “palta” in Peru?

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega provided the answer more than 400 years ago. Peru’s mestizo chronicler wrote about his country’s history in the Comentarios Reales de los Incas, a 1609 book that documented Inca culture before and during the Spanish conquest, including how the avocado arrived in Peru. While expanding their empire in the mid-15th century, the Inca conquered a tribe in southern Ecuador called “Paltas.” From there, they brought back the fruit—and the name.

As it turns out, Mexico has its own history of stuffed avocados. A few years ago, on a trip to visit family in Mexico, Los Angeles–based writer and recipe developer Andrea Aliseda found a book that provided some insight.

In the more elaborate aguacates rellenos de ensalada en nogada dulce, the peeled avocado is halved, pitted, and filled with a salad of shredded lettuce and roasted tomato, beet, cooked onions, and pomegranate—then rejoined and held together by thin cinnamon bark skewers.

“While visiting Cuernavaca, the ‘City of Eternal Spring,’ I [found] Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano in a used books and vinyl shop. It was like finding treasure,” says Aliseda. Published in the 1800s, Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano is a rare food dictionary that Aliseda calls the crown of her book collection. Among its hundreds of recipes, she spotted three entries for aguacates rellenos.

Aguacates rellenos de picadillo are avocado halves peeled, pitted, and stuffed with a mixture of minced pork loin, spices, tomato (Mexico’s native xitomatl), capers, and parsley, which are then bathed in an egg wash and deep fried. Aguacates rellenos de queso are the same, except that cheese replaces the pork loin. But the third version, Aliseda told me, changed her perspective on what’s possible with aguacate relleno.

In the more elaborate aguacates rellenos de ensalada en nogada dulce, the peeled avocado is halved, pitted, and filled with a salad of shredded lettuce and roasted tomato, beet, cooked onions, and pomegranate—then rejoined and held together by thin cinnamon bark skewers. A sweetened, cinnamon-spiced walnut sauce bathes the whole avocado, which is then garnished with raisins, almonds, and pine nuts. The effect is a bit like a savory Kinder egg.

The colonial foodways that brought new ingredients to the Americas also carried the avocado outside of Mexico to the Caribbean. From there, avocados likely arrived in the United States via the port of New Orleans, the gateway between Southern Louisiana and Caribbean culinary cultures.

According to New Orleans–based chef and tropical foodways expert Dana Honn, “The avocado almost definitely landed in New Orleans via Havana, Cuba, which was a primary trading partner with the city for over two centuries.” Honn also tells me that, by 1904, producers were attempting to grow avocados commercially in and around New Orleans (they were ultimately unsuccessful).

At first, locals maligned avocados and called them “alligator pears,” but the name began to take on positive connotations as dishes like “alligator pear salad” soon appeared in local newspapers.

At first, locals maligned avocados and called them “alligator pears,” but the name began to take on positive connotations as dishes like “alligator pear salad” soon appeared in local newspapers. And it was Southeast Louisiana’s fresh seafood bounty that made avocados stuffed with crab or shrimp popular in restaurants from the 1930s onward.

Honn explains that the dish has a Caribbean connection. “French Antilles dishes such as feroce d’avocat—avocado flesh, salt cod, chile peppers, and other ingredients, mixed and often served in the avocado skin—and, more likely, avocat farci—crab-stuffed avocado—would have been introduced to New Orleans in the late 19th or early 20th century.”

At Carmo, Honn’s restaurant in New Orleans, the menu features traditional dishes from the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, Southern Louisiana, and West Africa—all regions that define tropical foodways. And a Brazilian-inspired stuffed avocado with shrimp, hearts of palm, sweet pepper, and red onion makes an appearance off-menu.

Some of those tropical foodways were also slave routes that bridged the Caribbean and West Africa, where former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau is known for its abacate recheado com atum. In a preparation similar to the feroce d’avocat, the avocado flesh is removed from the halved and pitted avocado, then chopped and mixed with canned tuna to make a filling for the avocado skin. Finally, it’s garnished with grated coconut.

Recently, I made a plant-based version of Peru’s palta rellena for family and friends using mashed chickpeas instead of tuna, and it occurred to me that parsing whether the dish originated in Mexico, Peru, or the Caribbean may be in vain.

It could be simply that the halved and pitted fruit is a natural vessel that invites filling—a template that everyone who encounters the avocado finds their own inspiration in.

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