Every couple of weeks or so, my dad likes to rib me by saying, “When are you going to do another story about how, when you were a little kid, we forced you to eat foods you didn’t like?” (Although there are a few such incidences, like eggplant casserole and salmon patties with crunchy vertebrae, he’s talking specifically about the time he made me eat a big chunk of cooked onion. I told him I would throw up if he made me eat it. I ate it and I did.) Well, Dad, today is your day, because I am going to talk about The Great Avocado Incident of ’76 (or thereabouts).
I was 5 or 6 and hungry for a snack. My frugal parents were no doubt eager to use the free produce from the avocado tree in our sunny Southern California backyard, so they made me an “avocado salad,” or half an avocado with a heaping dollop of mayonnaise in the indentation normally occupied by the pit. I was revolted, both by the avocado, whose mushy texture I found off-putting, but also by the nauseating amount of mayonnaise in the middle of an already disgusting foodstuff.
I demurred, explaining that I didn’t care for avocado and, in terms of the mayonnaise-to-fruit ratio, this dish had rather egregiously exceeded the upper limits of acceptability. (In my recollection, this is a faithful rendering of my toddlerish thoughts and speech. It’s also how I think I sound now, at 52 — or is it 53? — though I could be closer to Dora, the forgetful but ultimately lovable fish from “Finding Nemo.”) But this was the 1970s, so maybe mayonnaise, along with steak, double martinis and filtered cigarettes, was considered “heart healthy.” Who was I, a mere disgruntled child, to blow against the wind?
At any rate, my parents barely considered my well-reasoned argument before casting it aside and insisting that I nevertheless consume the entire thing because it was Good for Me and Full of Vitamins. I patiently reviewed my rationale for declining, elucidating upon the viscosity and volume of mayonnaise, the bug-gut green of the avocado and the unpleasantly squishy texture of each thing on its own, compounded by having to eat the two together.
My parents escalated the matter until it became a You Will Do This or Else situation. I don’t recall whether I actually ate it. I imagine I did. My parents could be scary. And now I have a lifelong aversion to mayonnaise, though I eventually came around to avocados in certain circumstances.
One such circumstance is this refreshing, summery Avocado Salad. You can make the vegetarian version with avocado, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion and cilantro, or you can make it meaty by adding tuna or sauteed shrimp. But the really delicious part isn’t even the salad, it’s the dressing, which — call it overkill or call it genius — also has avocado in it.
But first, the salad, which is painfully simple. Peel and roughly chop one fresh, ripe avocado (which should yield to gentle pressure when poked, but not be brown inside). Chop one English cucumber and slice 1 pint of cherry tomatoes in half. Slice half a medium red onion, enough to equal ¹/3 to ½ cup, depending on how much you like onions. Wash and chop about two cups of baby romaine lettuce (though any dark green lettuce will do — I used romaine in my salad because that’s what’s growing in my garden, but arugula might add a sharper note, or you could try escarole or radicchio). Toss ½ cup of fresh cilantro into the mix and, unless you’re cooking for people who hate radishes (husband and daughter, I’m looking at you), then add two or three sliced radishes.
Next, the dressing. Peel an avocado and scoop it into a blender or food processor along with ½ cup Greek yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk. Add 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, the juice of one large lime (or about 1/4 cup) plus 1 tablespoon white wine or apple cider vinegar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Add a dash or two of cayenne for heat or you can keep things on the bland side (husband and daughter, I’m looking at you) and add ½ teaspoon of paprika. I also added a teaspoon of lime zest but then, I’m crazy about lime so what I consider normal amounts of lime might register to your taste buds as a lime nuclear explosion.
Buttermilk makes a nice, tangy dressing, but it will be somewhat thinner than if you use yogurt or sour cream, which makes the dressing thick enough to use as a veggie dip (which I heartily recommend). To get it to a pourable consistency, thin it with a little water or milk or, if using buttermilk, more buttermilk.
Pour the dressing over the salad and toss everything together. Taste it for salt and add more salt, vinegar or whatever you think it needs. (Maybe more lime zest?) Serve it right away because this salad won’t keep.
My parents weren’t wrong about the health benefits of avocados. Though they’re high in fat, they’ve also got potassium, magnesium, folate, niacin, vitamin C, fiber and even protein. And even if Dad did make me eat a lot of stuff I didn’t like, he also encouraged me to try different things and be open to new experiences. He wanted me to be adventurous, take reasoned risks and push against restrictions (just not his). And I will gladly take a lifelong aversion to mayonnaise to have a dad who reads everything I write and shows me, without ever exactly saying so, that he’s proud of me.
1 medium Hass avocado, peeled and diced
2 cups shredded baby romaine lettuce
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 English cucumber, diced
1/3-½ cup thinly sliced red onion
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 to 3 sliced radishes (optional)
1 medium Hass avocado
½ cup Greek yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one large lime (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
½ teaspoon paprika or 2 dashes cayenne
1 teaspoon lime zest (optional)
Water or milk, as needed
Toss salad ingredients together in large bowl. Put ingredients for dressing in blender or food processor and blend on high until smooth. Thin with water or milk as needed. Pour over salad and serve.