A few hours before my 50th birthday, I had dinner by myself at a local restaurant where a friend of mine was a server. This was a very intentional decision I made because, as strange as it may sound, all I wanted for my birthday was to hear Guido describe the specials. The “u” in his name is silent, so it’s pronounced “GHEE-doe.” He is of Argentinian descent and a beautiful person (inside and out), but please don’t misunderstand—this was not any kind of romantic inclination. Guido knew that I was a full-fledged foodie, and he had a remarkable gift in his ability to describe food with exactly the right words to make me want that dish.
How often have I rolled my eyes in a restaurant when a perky server bounces up to the table with the trite declaration, “Hi, I’m Ashley (Bridget, Connor, Danielle, whatever) and I’ll be taking care of you.” Sweetie, please, you have no idea what it will mean to take care of me. I’m a high-maintenance guest, so brace yourself. And while you’re at it, please stop with this cliché.
But not Guido, an old soul who has always seemed to know instinctively what I’m craving, from wine to appetizers to dessert. He never promised to take care of me, he just did so. And he never asked whether I wished for freshly cracked pepper from his giant pepper mill—he knew me, like a culinary soulmate, and I followed him when he moved to work in a different restaurant. He used words like “exquisite” and “succulent,” and he looked me in the eye as he described the dishes from memory rather than reading off his order pad. Of course, I realize the possibility that he was merely very persuasive in his approach, and that he may not have known what I wanted as much as he made me want the dishes he was selling. And I’m OK with that.
Either way, on my birthday that year, he positively nailed it when he “suggested” that I should begin my birthday meal experience with one of the chef’s special starters—a refreshing bowl of the house-made grilled watermelon gazpacho.
I have no idea what else I ate and drank that evening, but I never forgot about that gazpacho. It was everything I imagined and expected—fresh, chilled, flavorful—but unlike any I had ever had before, courtesy of the summer-sweet watermelon. And grilled, at that. The level of cool, clean refreshment was off the charts, and I’m very excited to finally make my own version of it, so I can share it with you. I’ve followed the lead of Guido’s chef by grilling wedges of fresh watermelon. I’ll mix it up with additional fresh watermelon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, red onions, cucumber and jalapeno. Doesn’t it sound like summer?
Though gazpacho is most often served as a starter, I’ve turned mine into a cool summer meal, with addition of paprika-dusted grilled sweet shrimp and creamy cubes of avocado. When you’re ready to make this, use the ripest, freshest farmer’s market tomatoes you can get your hands on. Grocery store tomatoes will not cut it for this one. And it’ll be best to use watermelon at its peak sweetness as well.
In a blender or processor, the whole thing comes together quickly, then just chill it down in the fridge overnight so these flavors have plenty of time to mingle.
From start to finish, this dish reminds me of Guido, whom I have stayed in touch with, but have not seen since that night at dinner. I should call him up and invite him to taste this gazpacho. It also reminds me of turning 50, and for some, that might not be a positive. But, without question, it turned out to be the best year of my life. Can a soup change one’s life? Probably not, but like any other food, sometimes it can hold a special place in your story.
3 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes* (see slideshow for peeling tips)
2 cups chopped grilled watermelon*
1 cup fresh watermelon
1/2 large red onion, rough chopped
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and rough chopped
1 good sized jalapeno, seeded and rough chopped
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp. seasoned salt
1 tsp. sweet smoked paprika
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 scallions, washed and trimmed
Extra virgin olive oil
1 avocado, peeled and cubed
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 jalapeno, diced (optional to taste)
I love heirloom tomatoes because they taste the way I remember tomatoes, rather than mealy and bland from the supermarket. If you can pick them from the vine yourself, even better! But if you don’t have a garden, no problem (after all, mine belongs to the deer). Head to the farmer’s market and don’t be shy about trying different varieties. It’s often the funky-looking tomatoes that have the very best flavor!
Grill the watermelon in large thick slices, as chunks are more likely to fall apart. We did them outside on the gas grill, but if you have an indoor grilll, that will work as well. The goal is to concentrate the flavors of the watermelon.
Here’s a quick visual tip for peeling tomatoes without boiling water and handling them when they’re all hot and slippery. My grandmother taught me this easy trick that works every time.
Instructions for the gazpacho
- Begin by grilling up several wedges of fresh, ripe watermelon. Cool them, and refrigerate until ready to proceed with the pureed soup.
- Peel your heirloom tomatoes, and remove seeds if desired. Pluck out any obvious watermelon seeds.
- Load up the bowl of your food processor or blender with the watermelon, grilled watermelon and peeled tomatoes. Work in batches if necessary. Pulse several times until mixture is evenly combined and “soupy.”
- Remove half of the pureed mixture to a separate bowl, then add the onions, jalapeno and cucumber to the processor and pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper, seasoned salt and vinegar and pulse again to combine.
Transfer the processor mixture to the bowl with the rest of the puree and adjust seasoning to taste. Refrigerate puree at least overnight to really blend the flavors.
Instructions for shrimp and serving
- Toss the shrimp with just enough olive oil to coat it, then season with paprika, salt and pepper and toss so that the spices are evenly coating the shrimp. Spray or drizzle the scallions with olive oil.
- Grill the scallions and shrimp (I used the integrated grill on our gas range) until they are desired doneness and scallions have sweet little grill marks. Allow both to cool slightly.
- Peel and cube the avocado and squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice over them to prevent browning. Chop the scallions. Dice the jalapeno.
- Ladle the gazpacho into serving bowls and top with the shrimp, avocado, jalapeno and scallions. Finally, a quick twist of freshly ground black pepper (did you know that black pepper has amazing health benefits?—Guido always said that when he brought the pepper mill to my table).
Here’s what I love about this soup—
- It’s cool, and in the midst of intense heat of a Southern summer, a welcome relief.
- It’s delicious, fresh and healthful. Just savoring these marvelous flavors in their natural state makes me want to take up yoga and change my name to “Sunshine.”
- It’s very low in fat. I don’t know the specific count, but there’s none in the soup, a nominal amount in the shrimp, and only the good-for-you kind in the extra virgin olive oil and avocado.
- A single serving satisfies a full daily requirement of nutrients, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.