Zen and the Art of Guacamole

Making guacamole has always struck me as an introspective exercise. In essence, it’s just a matter of combining some simple ingredients, yet the process itself is a series of rudimentary cooking chores — nothing all that difficult — but something that always invokes memories of my early days in the kitchen. To wit, my recipe for guacamole was adapted from my first real cooking job, which was a short order position in Los Angeles. That job was the source of lots of memories in its own right.

Whenever I prepare guacamole, I’ll instinctively start with the onion, since this is how I’ve begun countless recipes over the years. For anyone who cooks professionally, dicing onions is a recurring theme, and a timeless ritual: trying to glean nice little squares from a decidedly spherical vegetable. Dicing an onion will immediately determine the sharpness of a knife, since onions do not typically cooperate with dull blades. On the other hand, an onion can also remind a chef what a pleasure it is to use a sharp knife.

After the onion, I always concasse the tomatoes next, which invariably brings me right back to chef school: I can still recall carefully placing tomato petals on a half-sheet tray, and bringing this tray to the chef-instructor of my Skills class, hoping that I didn’t overlook any rogue tomato seeds. Despite this lasting impression, however, I will admit that I don’t typically uphold the French tradition these days: I actually leave the tomato peel on my concasse, especially with garden-fresh tomatoes. But I still try to remove every last seed.

Once the onions and tomatoes are diced, it’s all about the green ingredients: scallions, cilantro, lime, jalapeño, and of course, the almighty California avocado. With the latter ingredient, the highlight of the preparation lies in its uniqueness — burying your knife into the avocado pit with a satisfying thwack, then neatly dislodging the pit with only the slightest twist of the blade. The person who discovered this technique must have been quite pleased with themselves that day. It’s a clever approach to what would otherwise be a messy endeavor (try removing the pit any other way).

The key to creating delicious guacamole is managing the seasoning and acidity of the dish. Since avocados are so rich in (beneficial) fat, they can sometimes taste a little bland without some help. Salt is always the most important factor. Any considerable quantity of guacamole is going to require more than just a pinch of salt (I learned the same thing about foie gras — again, another fatty ingredient that requires some aggressive yet conscientious seasoning).

Acidity is also critical. Any guacamole recipe that does not contain lime juice is hopelessly lacking. For this reason alone, I would argue that lime juice is the third-most important ingredient in guacamole, right behind avocados and salt. Acidity helps brings the fat into balance, and it adds a layer of depth to the dish. Although tomatoes will also introduce a fair amount of acidity into the equation, the citric potency of lime juice is nonetheless essential.

Guacamole Ingredients (yields about one quart)

• Avocados, four each, pitted and peeled

• Diced onion, 1 cup

• Diced tomato, 1 cup, drained (too much juice can produce watery guacamole)

• Minced scallions, 1/4 cup (just the green, no white)

• Chopped cilantro, 2T (just the leaves, no stems)

• Juice of one lime (the zest wouldn’t hurt, either)

• Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, 1T (an homage to my short order days)

Guacamole Method

1. Assemble ingredients (I like to use a whisk to make guacamole — you can mash and stir to achieve your desired texture). Cover directly with plastic wrap and chill.

[Note: When spooning out the flesh of the avocados, be sure to scrape the peels thoroughly — the outer dark-green layer helps provide great color.]

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