Cinco de Mayo is a guacamole-and-chips holiday. That is, the holiday, like the ubiquitous appetizer, is more of an American thing than a Mexican one. Most Mexicans (save those in the state of Puebla) treat the occasion as a blip on the calendar, just as most don’t gather round guacamole with fried tortilla triangles at the ready. But Americans, heck, we’ll take any excuse to eat the stuff, which is indeed lovely with chips, but also tucked inside warm tortillas, mixed into rice or soup, or spooned onto grilled anything (fish, chicken, steak).
Our misconceptions about guac don’t stop with Mexican holidays. Like salsa and mole, guacamole is mistakenly thought of as a particular dish rather than as an expansive culinary category. In fact, the word “guacamole” is the result of the Spanish-ization of two words in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs: “ahuacatl” (avocado) and “molli” (mixture, more or less). Any time an avocado is mixed with other ingredients, you can call it a guacamole. In Mexico, you find a seemingly infinite array—chunky mashes mixed with anything from cucumber to crunchy pork skins as well as soupy blends that contain lovely stuff like tart tomatillos, the pungent herb epazote, and even milk.
I knew none of this before I met Roberto Santibanez, chef at Fondarestaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A year spent helping him write his second cookbook, Truly Mexican, divided my guacamole experience into two distinct parts: pre-Roberto (decent avocado mush) and post-Roberto (scene-stealing condiment). Since meeting him, I came to understand that there’s an art to turning a pile of basic ingredients into a dish worthy of the title “guacamole.” Here are a few ways he changed the way I make the classic version.
- Choose Ripe Avocados
Using properly ripe avocados (the pebbly-skinned Hass, of course, not the oversized, smooth-skinned, temptingly inexpensive but watery Florida variety) is the key to any guacamole. Ah, but how can you identify a perfect one without Roberto handing it to you? The standard suggestion is to use avocados that give slightly when you gently squeeze them, but Roberto recognizes this strategy’s imprecision (wait, how much should they give?) and gently suggests that novices like me often fail to let their avocados ripen enough. So, he says: Next time you have an avocado slowly ripening on the counter, let it get a bit softer than you typically do before cutting it open and tasting it. If you immediately think to yourself, “Whoa, the flavor and texture are butter-ier and better than ever!” then you’ve been using avocados before they’re perfectly ripe. Welcome to a new world.
- Make a Paste Before You Add the Green
Before Roberto introduced me to HD, full-color guacamole, I had been eating the blurry black-and-white version. That is to say, instead of simply tossing avocado chunks with the standard chopped-up trio of white onion, cilantro, and jalapeno, he first mashes those three ingredients with salt into a vivid green paste (see recipe below). That way, each chunk of avocado gets coated with this intensely salty, spicy stuff, and each bite makes you reel for a second before you sink into those blessedly creamy chunks. You can even make the paste a few hours in advance, adding the avocado (as you always and only should) at the very last minute.
- Season to Roberto’s Taste, Not Yours
Lusciously fatty avocados cry out for seasoning, so a generous hand with salt is essential to great guacamole. Easy, I thought, until Roberto urged me beyond my typical healthy sprinkle. The common season-to-taste injunction is helpful, for sure, but seasoning to your own taste can trap you in the ho-hum world of flavor in which you’ve always lived. It’s more exciting to go somewhere you’ve never been before. So do what Roberto suggests and (gradually) add more salt than usual, tasting as you go. Go easy on the lime juice, which I used to squeeze on with abandon. Now I’ve been converted to Roberto’s way: Add just enough to cut through the richness of the avocado flesh, but not so much that you taste the lime’s tartness. Too much lime juice gives you the wrong flavor profile, not to mention makes your guacamole watery and mushy.
Makes about 1 3/4 cups (this recipe can easily be doubled or quadrupled)
2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
1 tablespoon minced fresh serrano or jalapeño chile, including seeds, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, divided
1 large or 2 small ripe Mexican Hass avocados, halved and pitted
A squeeze of lime, if desired
Mash the onion, chile, salt (the coarseness of kosher salt helps you make the paste), and half of the cilantro to a paste in a molcajete or other mortar. You can also mince and mash the ingredients together on a cutting board with a large knife or a fork, and then transfer the paste to a bowl.
Score the flesh in the avocado halves in a crosshatch pattern (not through the skin) with a knife and then scoop it with a spoon into the mortar or bowl. Toss well, then add the rest of the cilantro and mash coarsely with a pestle or a fork. Season to taste with lime juice (if you’d like) and additional chile and salt.