I first landed in Los Angeles on a warm hazy day. I was 19, accompanying my father on a business trip, and sheltered by a middle class suburban background and a penchant for daydreaming. I didn’t much care for the place: I was bewildered by the ribbons of freeway lined with palms; the tall, glassy, impenetrable buildings; and the sun-bleached streets framed by featureless strip malls but devoid of people. While my dad attended meetings downtown I tried to explore, but the bus routes were poor, and it took me over an hour to travel by bus to any destination suggested to me by the smiling blond hotel concierge. The vegetable stands and food stalls at the Farmers Market on Fairfax failed to intrigue me. I was similarly bored by Universal Studios, which featured as its highlight the set of Ironsides; a tiny two-walled wedge-shaped office that showcased the ingenuity of Hollywood. Within a week, I was on a bus to Santa Barbara, to visit a friend from high school.
When I first set my eyes on Santa Barbara, my heart burst like an overripe fruit. It was, as they say, a Chamber of Commerce day, and in Santa Barbara, that counts for a lot. I had never seen such a beautiful place before: sun dancing on the water on my left, the mountains blue-green and illuminated by light to my right. Picturesque white washed buildings with red tile roofs dotted the landscape, the air was fresh and salty sweet; it was a lot for a girl from the flat lands of the Midwest to take in. Within a week, I had a job silk-screening T-shirts and a place to live within walking distance of the beach in a narrow two-story townhouse set at the back of a tiny courtyard rampant with bougainvilleas and sticky birds of paradise. It had hard wood floors, sloped stucco walls and original tile in the kitchen and bath, and it cost $250 a month. It is still there, even if little else of the Santa Barbara I once loved is.
In my backyard there was an avocado tree. I’d never seen, let alone tasted, an avocado before. Like my first taste of sushi some weeks later, it was love at first bite. I spent a whole summer eating those avocados, along with date bars from the Sunburst Farms store down the street and French fries from the corner burger stand.
Since that time, I’ve seldom spent a week without having a few avocados scattered on the kitchen counter waiting for my consumption. I like them with a bit of salt and lime juice, served with chips, a beer or a smoky anejo tequila. I like to smash and then toss them with chopped red onion and tomato, along with a dice of fresh hot chili and the above mentioned salt and lime. I eat them like butter on a piece of toast, or straight out of the shell over the sink. When I moved to London, I brought a couple of avocados as a gift to my mother-in-law who mixed them with tiny frozen shrimp and mayonnaise, a dish I did not care for. And when I finally moved to Los Angeles some 15 years later, I ate almost every day a sandwich of grilled bread, mashed and salted avocado, melted cheddar or goat cheese, and sliced tomato- my version of comfort food in a city that bewildered me with its spacial aloofness and police helicopters swarming low overhead.
Avocado Cream Pie
In Santa Barbara, my signature potluck dish was an avocado cream pie; essentially a custard made with evaporated milk, a layer of bananas at the bottom and a graham cracker crust. Sometimes the custard set and other times it did not – I remember hiking up a winding drive to a party thrown by a married lover, my stomach tied in knots and my mind racing with curiosity while the barely set filling of my pie sloshed down the sides of the pie plate and onto the front of my carefully chosen white peasant skirt. I also baked it for friends of mine as a present to welcome them home after a month long trip to Japan. I’d had the run of their cheerfully ramshackle house and large overgrown garden all to myself that month, the solitude being a particular luxury to me at the time. Upon their return I presented them proudly with the pie only to be reminded of something I’d known when they left: Cris was allergic to bananas, and Keith hated avocados.
Today I am fighting an overwhelming homesickness for the city I once disdained, along with a sense of bewilderment about having landed back in the flat Midwest, in a town I once said goodbye to for good and forever. I stand at the kitchen window, looking out at the carefully manicured garden and broad suburban lawn. I am eating an avocado from the shell with a spoon. I found a good source at a market here – $1.00 a piece and all the way from California. It is perfectly ripe, with a buttery mouth feel. I taste the fruit’s subtle nuttiness on my tongue and watch as the sun peers out briefly from a mostly grey sky.
My recipe for avocado banana pie is long lost, but this comes closest to my memory of it; found on a website called What’s Cooking America . Some toasted and chopped pecans or walnuts would be a nice garnish on top.
1 (9-inch) prepared Graham Cracker Pie Crust (store-bought or homemade)
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
3 medium-size very ripe Hass avocados, mashed
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
Refrigerate graham cracker crust until well chilled.
In a small bowl, combine lime juice, lemon juice, and unflavored gelatin; let stand 4 to 5 minutes or until softened / proofed.
In a large bowl or food processor, combine gelatin mixture, mashed avocados, and sweetened condensed milk. Pour mixture into prepared graham cracker pie crust.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours or until the filling is firm.
In a small bowl, whip heavy cream and sour cream together until stiff peaks form. Serve pie topped with prepared whipped cream mixture.
Makes 8 servings.
Sweet Corn Soup with Avocado Cream and Cilantro
This is a decidedly more sophisticated offering using avocado; the corn soup tastes rich though it contains no cream. It can be found in one of my favorite chef’s books, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin. Indiana has amazing sweet corn; use the freshest, juiciest corn you can find and enjoy this taste of Indian Summer!
4T unsalted butter
1 cup diced peeled yukon gold potatoes (1/4″ cubes)
1/2 chile de arbol
1 1/2 cups diced yellow onion
1 T fresh thyme leaves
4 cups fresh corn
6 sprigs cilantro plus 18 cilantro leaves for garnish
1/2 jalapeno, seeded
1/2 large ripe avocado
1/3 cup creme fraiche
1/2 tsp lime juice
salt and pepper
In a large saucepan, melt butter until it foams, then saute potato, onion, thyme and chile over low heat for about 10 minutes,until onion is translucent and the potatoes release their starch and appear creamy.
Turn the heat to high, then add corn cilantro sprigs, jalapeno, 1 1/2 tsp salt and some pepper.
Stir to coat corn in the mixture, pour in 10 cups of water and bring to a boil.
Turn the heat down, simmer on low about 30 minutes until the corn and potatoes are tender, but not mushy.
Meanwhile, puree the avocado and creme fraiche in a food processor until smooth. Season to taste with lime juice, salt and pepper.
Push the soup through a sieve over a large bowl, removing the chile. Puree the corn mixture in batches on low speed in a blender. Pour in one cup of liquid. Turn speed to high and pour in more liquid, a little at the time, until the the soup has the consistency of cream. Blend until soup is smooth, at least 1 minute.
To serve, ladle soup into bowls and serve with a dollop of avocado cream and a scattering of cilantro. Or, place the soup in a tureen and scatter the cilantro leaves over the top, serving the avocado cream on the side.
© Susan Arick and Locaovre’s Progress, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Arick and Locavore’s Progress with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Content not the author’s own has been credited to the original author, and falls under that author’s copyright.