Break out the chips and guacamole: Here’s a little good news about a bad little bug.
The ambrosia beetle, despite its pretty name, is trouble. Since arriving in the southeastern U.S. unannounced and unwelcome in the 2000s and Miami-Dade County in 2011, the beetles have killed more than 500 million trees, according to the USDA. They do so by spreading a fungus that causes laurel wilt disease, affecting redbay and other laurel varieties, including Florida avocado trees.
The good news? While ambrosia beetles and laurel wilt have destroyed more than 9,000 commercial avocado trees in the state, the damage accounts for about 1 percent of Florida’s annual $100 million cash crop.
“It’s not wiping out the industry,” said Jeff Wasielewski, Miami-Dade Extension’s commercial tropical fruit agent.
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The ambrosia beetle doesn’t mean to be bad, it just does what it does naturally — it spreads a fungus to feed its young (yuck). In Asia, the ambrosia beetle’s native habitat, the fungus and laurel wilt are no big deal because the vegetation tolerates it.
But the beetles aren’t from around here. They’re an invasive species, like the Burmese python, only smaller and more fungal. They aren’t doing our swamp bays any favors, but by the look of things, Florida avocados are not their favorite flavor.
Fine. More for us.
Consumption may help beat the beetle. That’s the message behind Fresh From Florida’s Save the Guac campaign, raising awareness and urging Florida chefs and consumers to choose Florida avocados.
With enough of us enjoying enough avocado toast, more resources may be allocated for laurel wilt research and Flavocado crop preservation.
“We need funding,” said Wasielewski, who started on the job about the time the ambrosias showed up in South Florida.
Buying Florida avocados may also give local growers a little financial cushion in the event of a fungal flareup.
For now, though, South Florida organic growers like Paradise Farm, Verde Farm and Bee Heaven Farm are not only pest-free, they’re having a robust season with succulent Flavocados like green-skinned Donnies, Hardees and other local cultivars.
Verde Farm manager Bill Squire also grows three varietals at his home in the Redlands. “All are producing nice fruit this year,” he said.
Local chefs are serving them, too.
SushiSamba (180 Aragon Ave.) in Coral Gables has been giving avocado an Asian twist, using it in maki and as an all-avocado app, grilled on the robata for extra lusciousness.
At Basil Park (17608 Collins Ave.) in Sunny Isles Beach, Tim Andriola features avocado in gazpacho and ceviche. He tucks a silken slice or two into sandwiches and wraps, stuffs avocado halves with poached eggs.
“It’s something we want to keep on our menu year-round,” Andriola said.
Threefold Café (141 Giralda Ave.) in Coral Gables uses 1 1/2 to 2 medium-size avocados per order of its popular avo toast. The amount of lime juice in the recipe also varies “depending on the flavor of the avocados at that time,” restaurant co-owner Nick Sharp said.
South Florida produces the fruit now through February, accounting for 12 percent of national avocado shipments.
So how to feed our insatiable avo appetite the rest of the year? We import them from the Dominican Republic — 14,400 tons of them in 2013, almost double what it was a decade ago, and from California, your major Hass source, as well as Hawaii, Peru, Mexico and other sources. (A recent pest problem prompted the USDA to ban Dominican avocado imports until further notice.)
Farm to table
California Hass avocados get much of the praise and find their way into most guacamoles, but that doesn’t keep Wasielewski from rooting for the home team.
“Florida ones are right here,” he said. “They’re not coming from across the country and Mexico. They’re not coming from corporations. They’re from our neighbors. Farm to table beats farm from far, far away every time.”
Local restaurants and markets aren’t reporting a drop in quality or availability or spike in price, either. That may come, according to a new projection from University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agriculture Sciences. But even here, there’s a sliver of good news. Any price bump will most likely be small and short-term, offset by the relatively inexpensive Dominican imports.
“Prices fluctuate,” Andriola said with a shrug. “You work it into your business model. You don’t let it affect anything on your menu. We have customers who have come to expect avocado in their spicy salmon wrap. We have to deliver.”
Do your part, South Florida. Eat up. Despite local avocado abundance, no one’s figured out how to make the beetle get out of town or reverse the damage from laurel wilt across the Everglades or in avocado trees.
The fine print on the fungus is “it’s still spreading,” Wasielewski said. “If you find it in your grove, you have to get that tree out, cut the roots, chip it, burn it. You destroy it as fast as possible.”
Art Friedrich, director of Miami’s Urban Oasis Project, said he hopes people will plant new trees to replace those lost to laurel wilt.
“Miami is unique because there are so many different nutritious trees we can grow,” Friedrich said.
Yeah, but only one grows our guac. No one wants to see a little bug get in the way of that.
Noted Friedrich: “Avocados are a huge part of our local culture.”
Threefold Café Smashed Avo
2 tablespoons clarified butter
1 medium portobello mushroom
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Pinch sea salt
1 1/2 to 2 medium Hass avocados (soft, ripe)
4 tablespoons feta, divided
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons finely diced fresh sweet basil
1 thick slice multigrain bread (Threefold uses Zak the Baker)
6 freshly cut microgreen pieces
Pour clarified butter around the gills of the mushroom. Sprinkle thyme and salt around mushroom. Roast in a 380-degree oven for 15-20 minutes.
Cut avocados in half and remove seed. Carefully cut 1/2-inch squares into the avocado flesh, and scoop out cubes with a spoon into a medium bowl. Add 3 tablespoons feta, plus lime juice and basil, and roughly mix until combined.
To serve, lightly toast the bread, then slice mushroom and lay over toast. Scoop avocado mixture over mushrooms and garnish with microgreens.
Optional: Can add a poached free-range egg drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Source: Threefold Café, Coral Gables.
Avocado Ice Cream
3 avocados (2 cups)
1/4 cup lime juice
1 cup sugar
2 cups whipping cream
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Whip avocado pulp, lime juice and sugar in blender or food processor. Pour the avocado mixture in the ice cream maker and add the whipping cream and condensed milk, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze until ready. Makes about 1/4 gallon.
Source: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Robata Grilled Avocado
1 Hass avocado
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon shichimi togarashi (see note)
Micro cilantro for garnish
Cut avocado in half and remove seed. Place flat-side down on robata or preheated grill, without moving, until you get good grill marks, about 2-3 minutes. Mix together soy sauce and rice vinegar. Plate the avocado halves grilled sides up, and spoon soy-vinegar mixture into cavity. Dust with shichimi togarashi and garnish with micro cilantro. Serves 1.
Note: Shichimi togarashi, or Japanese Seven Spice, is a punchy combination of chiles, sesame, orange zest, nori and more. If you can’t find it at an Asian market, you can use your favorite blend of chile-based seasonings.
Source: Chef David Sears, SushiSamba Coral Gables.