University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik has strong opinions about how to prepare guacamole — and she’s not kidding around.
A couple of weeks ago in The New York Times Book Review “How to” issue, novelist Kate Christensen, who has recently moved to Maine, had a wonderful essay about making clam chowder. The theme of embracing a new place through its ingredients and dishes is a sweet one to me. It was the story of me and Texas, where I lived for 20 years.
The Tex-Mex food I am and always will be obsessed with is divided into two categories: things you can make at home, and things you should go to Texas to eat in a restaurant, like cheese enchiladas or huevos rancheros with fresh tortillas and refried beans. I won’t dwell on the latter; it will just make us sad. Fortunately, in the do-at-home group is guacamole.
I first ate guacamole at a happy hour in Austin when I was 18. Guacamole was the sexiest word I had ever heard, especially as pronounced by the smoldering Chicano waiter: wah-ka-molay. Then I scooped it onto a tortilla chip and put it in my mouth — 50 shades of rich avocado, piquant with garlic and tangy with citrus. It looked like money and tasted like sex. It was the perfect foil for the fire of the chiles in the salsa, the jalapeno slices on the nacho, the heat of the Texas sun.
These days guacamole is everywhere, including ready-made in tubs at the grocery store and prepared by hand in a molcajete at your table in an upscale Mexican restaurant. Some of this guacamole is okay, some is not. None is better than you can make yourself at home if you do it right. Right is a method I have come to after decades of experimentation, with my sons, who were born and raised in Texas, as a critical audience. Emphasis on the critical, as we shall see.
There are many ingredients commonly put in guacamole that should not be there. You will not need limes, cilantro, onion, tomatoes, salsa, or jalapeno. I love these things, but I save them for my salsa, which I make in the food processor to go with the guacamole. Or if I am feeling energetic, I chop them by hand.
The ideal guacamole has only four components: avocado, salt, lemon, and garlic. Lime is traditional, I know, but I believe lemon does more to bring out the other flavors. You might add a shot of Tabasco or other bottled pepper sauce. It’s not that it will be inedible if you add the stuff I listed above, but it won’t be as perfect in color, texture or taste. Like a picky six-year-old, I don’t like little things in my guacamole. I certainly don’t like the color it turns when you add tomatoes or grocery-store salsa. It should be an almost electric green.
I have not mentioned sour cream or mayonnaise. These no more belong in your guacamole than in your coffee.
Do not consider making guacamole if you do not have ripe avocados. An avocado is ripe when you can indent it slightly with your thumb, but it is still a little firm. It is overripe when it is soft and loose in its shell. These overripe avocados will be brown inside and taste nasty. If you can find only rock-hard avocados, put them in a paper bag on top of your refrigerator for a few days. If you want guacamole on Friday, the best bet is to buy avocados early in the week. Once they are ripe, move them to the fridge. There they will be fine for several days.
You should not prepare the guacamole much in advance of your guests’ arrival or it will not be the right color. You can even wait until they get there. Hand them a cold Bohemia or a margarita on the rocks, and they will wait happily. (To make margaritas, mix in a pitcher one cup good silver tequila, one-quarter cup Triple Sec, the juice of two limes, two tablespoons Minute Maid frozen limeade. Pour over ice in glasses rimmed with salt.) If you have made salsa, you can put that out with chips while you whip up the guac.
Cut the avocado in half lengthwise with a knife. Pull the halves apart, remove the pit, and slip a spoon between the shell and the fruit to pry it out, then drop it into a bowl. It will probably come out whole, but if it doesn’t, scrape out every last bit.
For every two avocados, use the juice of half a lemon (if the lemons are small or dry, maybe a whole one), and one or two cloves of garlic, put through a press. Mash these together with a fork. Add salt to taste. The salt is indispensable but too much will wreck it, and I am not the kind of girl to get out the measuring spoons.
Here as elsewhere, pride goeth before a fall.
My kids and I spent the Fourth of July with our old best friends from Texas, Jim and Jessica, who now live in DC. Jim was doing his famous barbecue and I was doing my famous guacamole. I saw that Jim had some kind of fancy salt sitting by his stove in a little dish. For some reason I thought it would be less salty than regular salt, so I put several generous pinches into the bowl, mixed it up, and almost spit out what I sampled. I had totally wrecked it and I had no more avocados. Trying to hide my error, I gaily chopped up a tomato and an onion, threw them in, and acted like nothing was wrong when I put the slightly brownish and soupy concoction on the table.
“What happened to the guacamole, Mom?” asked my son Hayes, staring at it dubiously.
I mumbled something about variety being the spice of life. I later heard that Jim spoke privately to Hayes about the matter.
“What’s the deal with your mom’s guacamole?” he asked.
“Tomatoes,” said Hayes grimly. “I know. I already talked to her about it.”
Well, they ate it — some of it. I ate most, actually, as one sometimes does in this situation.
The final pitfall to avoid is over-mashing. You don’t want a homogeneous creamy texture. Part chunky, part smooth is good. And the chips make a difference too. The finest in Baltimore are homemade at Tortilleria Sinaloa on Eastern Avenue. Serve them warm if possible. Once you’ve got a famous guacamole on your hands, you have to give it its due.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.