For such a mild-tasting fruit, the avocado has a racy reputation. In its native Central America, the avocado was an aphrodisiac, thanks to its pear shape and creamy flesh.

Avocados found their way to California in 1871, where about 90 percent of today’s U.S. crop is grown. The two most widely cultivated varieties you’re likely to find in the grocery store are Hass and Fuerte. Hass avocados have a pebbly skin that starts out green and ripens to purple-black, while Fuerte avocados are green with a smoother skin. The flavor difference is subtle: Hass avocados are smoother with more oil content, and Fuertes have more fiber. They’re interchangeable in recipes to all but the most discriminating advocates of one or the other.

U.S. avocados are available year-round, but not in volume supply during the off-season. The California harvest season is January through September, and imports are usually available August through February, says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing at the California Avocado Commission.

Since avocados don’t ripen on the tree, you have some flexibility in choosing the ripeness at the store, DeLyser says. “Everyone likes to poke and squeeze avocados with their fingertips, but don’t, because that will bruise it,” she says. “Instead, gently cradle it in the palm of your hand and squeeze with your palm and fingers. If the fruit yields, it’s ripe.”

Buy ripe avocados for immediate use, or store them in the fridge to stop ripening. If you’re purchasing a few days ahead of time, select an avocado that’s not quite ripe and let it sit on the countertop. To speed-ripen, put a few avocados in a paper bag with an apple at room temperature (apples give off ethylene gas, a ripening agent).

The easiest way to prepare an avocado is to cut it in half lengthwise around the seed, then twist the two halves to separate. Remove the seed with a small spoon, then slide a large spoon between the flesh and skin and scoop the flesh out.

Like apples, avocados turn brown when exposed to air, so cut them just before serving. A teaspoon of lemon or lime juice helps retain the green color, or you could try the technique suggested by an old wives’ tale: bury the pit in the guacamole to help retain color. “I know people who swear by this. It never hurts to try,” DeLyser says.

If the fruit isn’t familiar to you, test drive it with a big bowl of guacamole and chips. But avocado has many other uses, too. Its high fat content—the heart-healthy monounsaturated kind, which can lower the bad LDL cholesterol and maintain levels of the good HDL cholesterol—makes it versatile for slicing, dicing and smashing into various dishes.

“Most Americans discover avocados in Mexican restaurants, but there are so many ways to use them,” DeLyser says. “Avocados are appearing in all different types of cuisines.”

Nowhere is this truer than the addition of avocado to the Japanese sushi roll, says J. Cooney, the executive sushi chef at Nama Sushi Bar in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Avocados originated in Western-style sushi, not in Japan. Hence the California Roll.” At Nama, Cooney uses avocado for flavor, texture and decoration in creations like the Caterpillar Roll, made with eel, crab and cucumber, topped with avocado and drizzled with eel sauce. “We put avocados across the top to make the roll actually look like a little green caterpillar,” he says.

If eating a caterpillar look-alike isn’t your thing, try avocados in more traditional cuisine. They’re great in tortilla soup, in a Southwestern omelet with black beans, rice, corn and salsa, in BLT sandwiches and cubed in salads. Try them with anything that sets your mouth on fire, too. Because avocados are high in fat, they temper heat.

“Avocado is like sour cream in that it offsets spicy foods, so you get the flavor without the burn,” Cooney says.
Just don’t heat an avocado for more than a few minutes, since cooking turns the fruit bitter.

David Myers, Chef/owner of Sona, a Modern French fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles, likes to marinate raw fish and scallops in avocado oil, which is similar to olive oil but with its own distinctive taste and a higher smoking point. He also uses the oil to make an unusual vinaigrette with pine nuts and preserved green papaya.

“Avocado is great for dessert, too,” Myers says. “The fattiness of the avocado goes hand in hand with the richness of ice cream.” Myers didn’t make this one up: Indonesians and Brazilians are fond of avocado ice cream and sweet drinks.

When it comes to wine matching, avocado has a reputation as a difficult date. “My Web site visitors frequently ask me about avocados because they’re one of the toughest foods on wine,” says Natalie MacLean, author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over and publisher of a free e-newsletter at www.nataliemaclean.com. “I put them in a category I call ‘Green Wine Stalkers’ because their natural compounds don’t marry well with many wine styles.”

MacLean suggests pairing avocado dishes with zesty whites, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. “The mouth-watering acidity in the wine cuts through the sweetness and fattiness of the fruit. That’s why a non-vintage sparking wine or Pinot Grigio also works.”

Red wines are a tougher match, MacLean says, because the tannins in the wine can clash with the fruit’s high oil content. She likes to pair avocados with light, fruity reds such as Beaujolais and Pinot Noir.

If you’re sampling California rolls, try a Junmai-shu sake, which has full, rich body and higher acidity to compliment the creaminess and subtle flavor of avocado.

Here are three wine-friendly avocado recipes to use at your next summer get-together.

Californian Crab-Stuffed Avocado

The classic Chilean recipe Palta Reina (Royal Avocado) takes on a California twist with lemon-scented rice, crab and sweet corn. This salad is perfect for luncheon on a hot summer day. Serve with fresh fruit and crispy bread.

For the vinaigrette:
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the stuffed avocados:
1 cup uncooked medium-grain rice
2 cups chicken stock
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon butter
Zest of 2 lemons (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 ears fresh sweet corn, husked and cleaned
4 cups mixed salad greens
2 medium ripe avocados
12 ounces cooked crab meat
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

To prepare the vinaigrette: Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.

To prepare stuffed avocados: Combine rice, chicken stock, garlic and butter in a small saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat; reduce heat to low and cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove rice from heat; stir in lemon zest and salt, and let cool.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add corn; cook 5–7 minutes or until tender. Remove corn with tongs and cool. Using a sharp knife, cut kernels off the cob (about 1 cup of kernels).

Peel, seed, and halve avocados. Divide salad greens among four plates and top with avocado halves. Combine rice and corn; mound into avocado halves and top with crab meat. Drizzle each stuffed avocado with vinaigrette and sprinkle with cilantro. Serves 4.

Wine recommendation: A demi sec Vouvray such as the 2005 Chateau Moncontour Vouvray matches the sweetness of the corn and crab, but is acidic enough to stand up to the avocado. Or try a California sparkling wine like Roederer Non-Vintage Brut.

Avocado Butter

Use basic Avocado Butter as a spread or substitute for butter in sandwiches, on steamed vegetables, and in omelets. While avocado isn’t quite a blank slate for flavor, it’s a great starting base to add spices. Spread Cumin Avocado Butter on pitas; dollop Herbed Avocado Butter onto grilled salmon or chicken; use Garlic Avocado Butter on toasted baguette slices topped with tomato; and spread Cayenne Avocado Butter on corn on the cob.

If you like a little texture, mash by hand; if you prefer creamy, use a food processor or blender to purée. This recipe is great for using up very ripe avocados.

Basic recipe:
1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1 scant tablespoon lemon or lime juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To prepare: Mash avocado with lemon or lime juice, salt, and pepper. Cover tightly and refrigerate or serve immediately. If desired, add any of the following:

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fresh minced oregano or thyme
1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley, basil, or cilantro
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Wine recommendation: La Vis Ritratti 2005 Pinot Grigio from Trentino is crisp but has balancing acidity, making it versatile for pairing with the Avocado Butter in its many forms.

Avocado, Tomato, and Spinach Crepes with Bacon and Pesto
These rich crepes are excellent with a crisp green salad. You can make the crepes and pesto ahead of time to make assembling easier.

For the crepes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter (divided)
For the pesto
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For the filling:
6 strips bacon
1 large tomato, seeded and diced
4 cups fresh baby spinach
1¼4 cup finely chopped red onion
4 ounces smoked gouda or provolone,
shredded
1 large or 2 small avocados, diced

To prepare the crepes: Blend flour, eggs, milk, salt, and 2 tablespoons melted butter in a blender until smooth. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight, to allow air bubbles to escape. Gently stir batter.

Heat a 6- or 7-inch nonstick crepe pan or skillet over medium heat. Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in the pan. Ladle or pour 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the pan, tilting the pan to cover it completely. Cook the crepe until the edges begin to turn brown, about 1 minute. Turn crepe over and cook another 15 seconds.

Invert pan onto a plate and stack crepes. Repeat the cooking process, adding more butter as needed and adjusting the heat so the crepes don’t burn. If making crepes ahead of time, store in refrigerator between layers of wax paper up to two days or in the freezer up to two months. Reheat before using.

To prepare the pesto: Combine basil, cheese, pine nuts and garlic in a food processor or blender, stopping to push basil down until chopped thoroughly. With the motor running, add olive oil in a constant stream until thoroughly combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 1 cup of pesto.

To prepare the filling: Cook bacon until crisp in a skillet; drain on paper towels and crumble. Drain bacon grease from skillet (don’t wipe out) and add tomato, spinach, and red onion. Cook and stir on medium heat until spinach is wilted and tomatoes are warm, about 4 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat and stir in bacon, cheese and avocados.

To assemble: Lay out crepes on the countertop. Spread about 2 teaspoons pesto on each crepe. Spoon equal amounts of filling on crepes and roll up. Place in a buttered 9 by 13 ovenproof dish and, if desired, heat in a 400 degree oven until warmed through (about 5 minutes).

Makes 12–16 crepes for 4 main dish servings or 8 appetizer servings.

Wine recommendation: A racy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, like the Kim Crawford 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, will cut the fat in the avocado and lend balance to the rich crepes. Or try a dry rosé such as the Phélan Ségur 2005 Le Rosé, which enhances the tomato flavor.