published Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Side Orders: Avocados: Nature's powerhouse

You see them in every store, from the small discount grocery stores to the trendy, higher-priced establishments, their dimply green skins layered one on top of another and piled into bins.

Avocados.

Just open your email, and if the subject line is about health foods, it's likely you'll find avocados on the list. Yet a generation ago, they weren't a common sight in the Tennessee Valley. So what happened?

"First and foremost is availability," says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission. "Twenty years ago, the volume of avocados available in the U.S. was between 400 to 500 million pounds. But in 2013, the aggregate volume was 1.7 billion pounds. The first billion-pound year was in 2006."

Now that's a lot of avocados, and it has had a tremendous impact on sales, with shoppers being able to buy on impulse, DeLyser notes.

"Ripe avocados were introduced in the 1980s and are now the norm," she says. "Additionally, accurate information on the nutrition of avocados has also had a positive impact. Avocados are listed regularly on health and nutrition experts' lists of super food."

Avocados may be small, but they certainly are a powerhouse of nutritive value. They provide 20 essential vitamins and minerals, including:

• Riboflavin, thiamine and folate, which aid in digestion and metabolism.

• Niacin which, along with the riboflavin, improves the quality of your skin.

• Vitamins C, B6 and E as well as zinc, which all work to ward of illness and fight infection.

• Magnesium, which helps build muscle and improve nerve function.

• Phosphorous and manganese, which work to improve bone health as well as bone and teeth formation.

• Copper, which helps to regulate your heart rate and maintain normal blood pressure.

• Pantothenic acid, which helps in the formation of red blood cells.

  • photo
    Avocados are a healthful, tasty addition to a pasta salad.
    Photo by Andy Johns /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
    Photo by Anne Braly

Not only that, they're versatile, too ... good in dishes from breakfast through dessert. They're showing up in more places than as a sidekick to a basket of tortilla chips.

But have you ever wondered why some stores sell them for much less than others? DeLyser says prices vary based on size and retailer strategies, but you can also take a look at the stickers found on most avocados. If the number on the sticker reads 4770, it is the jumbo Hass variety, which are packed 36 to a 25-pound box. The 4225 number represents 40 and 48 count to a 25-pound box. And 4660 indicates that 60 to 84 avocados were packed in the 25-pound box.

But no matter how many are packed, they are all packed and shipped well before they are ripe enough to eat. While they may ripen on their way to Chattanooga or ripen while they are sitting in their bins in the grocery store, most times, it's hard to find ripe ones when you need them. And there's really no good way to speed the ripening process. Patience is the key, and sometimes you end up waiting five or six days before your avocado is ready to eat.

But DeLyser offers one method that sounds familiar and will speed up the process by a day or two.

"Avocados like tomatoes, pears, bananas and apples, produce a hormone called ethylene, which aids in ripening," she says. "To expedite things, you can place the avocados in a paper bag at room temperature and/or put another ethylene-producing fruit in the bag with them."

Such fruits also include apricots, nectarines, plums, papayas and cantaloupe.

Avocados are one fruit that is available year round, but their lovely green color is perfect for spring, which coincidentally begins Thursday. This pasta salad was a first-place winner in a recent contest sponsored by the California Avocado Commission.

Avocado Dijon Pasta Salad

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon dry tarragon

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 pound pasta penne, cooked

3 ounces snow peas, cut in half

2 ounces chopped green onion

2 ounces red pepper, julienned

2 ounces yellow pepper, julienned

2 large ripe avocados, cut into cubes

2 ounces chopped parsley or cilantro

Cook the pasta as per instructions on the bag. Drain and cool. For the dressing, in small bowl, whisk together the oil, Dijon, honey, lemon juice, tarragon, salt and pepper. Set aside. In a larger bowl add the pasta, peas, both peppers, parsley and avocado. Add the dressing to this mixture and toss gently until well coated. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve chilled on a large platter or bowl. Makes 10 servings.

Book signing

Popular cookbook author Christy Jordan will come to Chattanooga as part of her book tour for her newest cookbook, Come Home to Supper, on Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Hamilton Place.

If you've ever visited her website, SouthernPlate.com, you'll know how devoted she is to pleasing the Southern palate and connecting families by returning them to the dinner table. It's where struggles and triumphs are shared, she says in a news release. The dinner table "is the anchor that keeps a family from drifting apart."

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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