The queenly avocado

Palta Reina

Long Canadian winters limit the availability of fresh local produce. We can hardly achieve a balanced diet without resorting to a few imports. I use this opportunity to enjoy tropical fruits and vegetables that can never grow here. Avocados and citrus fruits are two indispensable items I combine with local vegies like carrots and leeks, plus a growing selection of warm-season vegetables like spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers from Ontario greenhouse operations.

Here’s something cool about avocados: they evolved in Central America alongside huge herbivores like the giant ground sloth, capable of digesting the whole fruit and passing its seeds without choking to death. Since all these creatures met their demise thousands of years ago, perhaps at the hands of early human hunters, avocados have lost their natural strategy for seed dispersal. So they should have become extinct 13,000 years ago, too, but carry on just the same. Author Connie Barlow relates this and other similar strange tales in The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms. However, humans have also aided survival by domesticating the delicious, nutritious avocado.

Though it is high in fats, these are mostly oleic acids, which help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. A diet rich in avocados has been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol in people like me with mild hypercholesterolemia.

Avocados also enhance digestive absorption of beta-carotene, our most important source of vitamin A. It gives orange vegetables like carrots and pumpkins their colour but also occurs in greens like spinach and avocados themselves. This is another good reason to combine them with other vegetables in salads.

Slit or nick the skin of an avocado, then peel it like a banana. Be careful to utilize as much as possible of the dark outer flesh immediately under the skin. This is particularly rich in beta-carotene and other nutrients.

Last winter when I embarked on establishing the habit of eating salad every day for lunch, I also conscripted my partner one day a week. Avocado plays a starring role in Cobb salad, which has become our traditional Sunday dinner.

Lately I have been vicariously glimpsing and enjoying some of Peru’s food, culture and natural beauty through Toni Radcliffe, blogger of Shape of Things to Come, who is living and working there for a year. They have a salad called palta reina, or “avocado queen”.

I’m not a linguist, but my modest effort to interpret palta reina proved fascinating. The Spanish word for avocado is aguacate but Peruvians use palto. Reina means queen but seems similar to rellena meaning satiated or stuffed, as in a sausage. Palta reina or palto a la reina is a queenly avocado traditionally stuffed with chicken salad. [Edit: I found out after a comment from Toni that palto is the word for avocado in Quechua, an indigenous language widely spoken in the Andes.]

However, I worked from a vegetarian version Toni posted, using beans instead of chicken. It makes a quick and easy lunch, and has become something I look forward to mid-week in my salad routine.

I grate some Ontario carrot, finely slice a tablespoon of Ontario leek, add some drained black beans and blend the vegetables together with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a generous dollop of mayonnaise and some pepper. The Worcestershire sauce was my own intuitive innovation, but I found a chef on Youtube who also uses it. A dash of cayenne and Tobasco sauce would also be appropriate here, as would cooked chicken of course. Mix it all up and spoon over two halves of an avocado over a bed of lettuce.

Enjoy this on its own for lunch or as the first course in a larger meal.

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