ONCE CONSIDERED A PEASANT DISH, 21ST CENTURY GAZPACHO HAS BEEN ELEVATED TO A TRUE WORK OF ART
BY CHEF DAVID BURKE
Gazpacho is a summer staple on many restaurant menus. But when I was the 26-year-old executive chef at Brooklyn’s River Café in the late 1980s, gazpacho was not mainstream and never seen on a fine dining menu. I became familiar with gazpacho while traveling in Europe. It’s a refreshing peasant dish made from summer’s best ingredients, with origins in Spain and Portugal. I thought with a little innovation it could be a big seller for us but I had to fight like hell to get it on the menu even though River Café’s owner, Buzzy O’Keefe, was way ahead of his time and at the forefront of modern American cuisine. This was long before even the term farm-to-table was used. He always insisted we used the finest and freshest ingredients we could find. River Café chefs before me, Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer, had established close ties with local producers and farmers in New Jersey and New York, and I loved creating dishes using the season’s freshest bounty.
The dish’s main ingredients are a Jersey summer trifecta of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon. To make the dish more appealing, I ramped up the flavor profiles with cumin and this helped our servers to sell the unfamiliar dish. At that time people didn’t know what gazpacho was, but they knew chili. So the servers said to the guests, “If you like chili, you’ll love gazpacho.” Watermelon added more refreshing flavor and a little sweetness. I added a bit of a kick with cayenne pepper and another layer of flavor with smoked paprika.
To make the dish decadent enough for our fine dining restaurant, I used a dramatic tableside presentation. I had servers pour the gazpacho from a teapot into a wide empty bowl at the table. Then they suspended a skewer with colorful poached jumbo shrimp, avocado, cherry tomato, and red pepper on the edges of the bowl. It’s a riff on the familiar shrimp cocktail. The dish makes a decadent, beautiful appetizer, regaling in all the best summer ingredients.
Trust me friends, there is nothing mediocre about this bowl of chilled soup. I also use fresh crab meat on the skewers. You can find both jumbo shrimp and even decadent Maryland Blue Crab at Lusty Lobster in Highlands. Or, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to make the dish at home, you will find it as a special on my at-the-moment, creative nightly specials at my seven New Jersey restaurants.
TOMATO & WATERMELON GAZPACHO WITH SHRIMP SKEWERS
Serves 4 Shrimp skewers 12 large shrimp peeled and de-veined with the tail removed 1 tablespoon chives Large slices of avocado Cherry tomato Red pepper
5 large ripe tomatoes, quartered ½ cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped ½ red bell pepper, chopped 3 cups cubed watermelon 2 cloves garlic 2 tablespoons coarse or kosher salt 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper ½ cup olive oil ¼ cup sherry vinegar 2 tablespoons quality mayonnaise, like Hellmann’s 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 tablespoon smoked paprika Three thin slices of cucumber
Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until finely puréed. Depending on the size of your processor, you may have to do this in two or more batches. Reserve. Poach jumbo shrimp in salted water for five minutes, then shock in ice water. Assemble on a skewer in order: shrimp, avocado, pepper, cherry tomato. Place skewer over gazpacho on the edges of the bowl. Place cucumber slices on top. Sprinkle chives over the skewer. Enjoy!