The connection of meat to fire is so primordial and magnetic that it always seems to draw us in and captivate our attention. The first homo sapiens who figured out how to summon fire at will and then add some raw meat not only experienced something wholly new and delicious, but sent us down an evolutionary path that paved the way for technology, language and culture. These days we spend less and less time connecting with our foods on an elemental level - few of us grow our own produce and even fewer of us hunt and gather from the wild. This could be why when we build a fire and and cook our food directly on it, in this most ancestral way of cooking, we’re transfixed. Perhaps through this basic, elemental way of cooking we are reminded of a more profound connection with our food.
I’ve been cooking over live fuel for years, in fact when I had my restaurant Tertulia in New York City, we were one of the very first restaurants in the country to focus on cooking food over live fire. Guests were constantly finding their way back into the kitchen following the intoxicatingly delicate smell of smoke caramelized etc. They would hover, transfixed, as our chefs cooked and stoked, cooked and stoked.
When we opened the restaurant, we only really thought of the grill, as a perfect place to cook a perfect steak. Maybe, just maybe, a piece of fish. Then one day, we threw some asparagus on the grill and the flavor was revelatory. And then an artichoke, and then some broccoli, and spring onions, and aubergine....and before we knew it, we were hunting through the farmer’s market to see what other flora and fauna we could grill. By the end of the Summer of 2011 if it grew in the ground in New York State and was edible, there was a good chance it would end up on our grill. We couldn’t believe the nuanced flavors smoke and fire coaxed out of our vegetables. We grilled everything. Grilled milk to make smokey ice-cream? Yup.
Since those early days of grilling things that weren’t meat, I’ve gone through a personal health journey, going from chronically ill to healthy and fit. Embracing a new relationship with nourishing foods has been at the center of my journey and turning the idea that “healthy food” is not “delicious food” on its head has been a personal mission of mine. Now, any chance I can, I love to continue my whacky obsession with grilling vegetables and fruits, and while there have been a few missteps along the way (may my recipe for chicken with grilled kiwis rest in peace), I’m nearly always amazed by how a little smoke and a some direct heat can make a familiar ingredient appear completely new.
As I’m constantly thinking of new ways that I can improve on my own cooking and approach ingredients differently, I lean on the tried and true tools in my kitchen to help me think outside the box. When it comes to puréed soups, the Vitamix is hands down the best machine to use. This is one of my recent favorites, combining two of my most-loved fruits: the avocado and the watermelon. I love embracing the natural sweetness of watermelon, but using it in a savory context as a chilled soup. And the avocado? What can I say, who doesn’t swoon for an avocado, regardless of how it’s prepared? Kissing this delicious, fatty fruit with some smoke and fire is a great way to creatively explore potential.
Grilled avocado with chilled watermelon soup + toasted pumpkin seeds, lime and coriander
Yield: Serves 4
- 2 slightly firm avocados (this is a great use for the somewhat under-ripe avocados we are so often impatiently and unsuccessfully try to force into guacamole)
- Avocado oil
- 1 medium seedless watermelon, cut in chunks
- 1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
- 1 clove garlic, grated on a micro plane
- 1 shallot, sliced
- 1 Fresno chile, seeded and sliced
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- ¼ cup Extra Virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 TBSP pumpkin seeds, toasted in a dry pan
- 4 sprigs coriander
- 4 radishes, thinly sliced
Method: Pre-heat grill to medium-high heat
Combine the watermelon, cucumber, garlic, shallot, Fresno chile and lime juice in the Vitamix and process on high until perfectly puréed. Reduce the speed to low and drizzle in the olive oil. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper and set aside to chill in the fridge.
Meanwhile, carefully cut the avocado in half, leaving the fruit in its skin, then season the cut side with avocado oil and sea salt.
Arrange the avocado on the grill, cut side down, with the top at 11 o’clock and the bottom at 5 o’clock and grill until you have nice grill marks and the fruit begins to soften, about 3 minutes.
Using a metal spatula, carefully lift the avocados off the grill a rotate them clockwise a quarter turn so now the top is facing 1 o’clock and the bottom is facing 7 o’clock and grill for another 2-3 minutes until you have perfect cross-hatched grill marks. Remove from the grill and set aside.
Divide the soup into four chilled shallow bowls. With a sharp knife, carefully cut a slice out of the “cheek” of the avocado, through the skin, to make a flat surface for it to sit on, then using a large spoon, gently scoop the avocado out of the skin.
Place one half an avocado in each bowl and fill the center of the avocado with toasted pumpkin seeds. Garnish with torn leaves of coriander, thin slices of radish, lime zest, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.