the unexpected pleasures of savory watermelon

As soon as the sweet, dense, singular Eastern Oregon-grown Hermiston watermelons hit the market in late July, I try to keep a tub full of ready-to-eat slices close by in the refrigerator, just in case a heat-related emergency arises.  But heat and watermelon can be even chummier, I realized last night at an illuminating supper.

Taco Belly (which no one calls by its official name, Taqueria Belly) is the fancier new Belly’s scruffy kid sister, but no less beloved by its owners and staff and customers.  The regular menu is good, but the specials…well, sometimes the specials just Knock. It. Out. Of. The. Park.  I submit to you Exhibit A:

A grilled watermelon “salad,” special du jour du yesterday.  Watermelon salads are usually fussy things, with little cubes and precious dots and twiddles and fringes.  This was big, luscious slices of watermelon, grilled on a hot fire with the rinds on.  Then the slices were topped with pepitas, fresh goat cheese (I think), a simple roasted salsa roja, and a smattering of white onion and cilantro.  The pile is crowned with a few edible nasturtium flowers, which add not only fiery glory but a peppery and slightly bitter note.

This morning, admittedly high on watermelon, I found an elegant appetizer of salmon sashimi draped over a spiced watermelon refrigerator pickle from the slightly odd blog My Man’s Belly.  You can find her recipe linked in the watermelon category of the Punk Domestics preservation collective blog.  You might try smoked salmon, homemade gravlax or quickly seared salmon, as well.  Oregon salmon, of course.

But we can’t stop there.  I’ve been saving a recipe from the Bite of Eugene last year for exactly a moment like this, an original recipe that Iron Chef Oregon 2010, our dear Gabriel Gil of Rabbit Bistro & Bar served at the festival and distributed to attendees. Watermelon gazpacho. Yes.  It’s a subtle and perfect blend of watermelon and sweet, acidic summer tomatoes, with red peppers, cucumbers, onion and garlic to provide the underpinnings a good gazpacho needs.  It was my favorite soup last summer, so I asked Chef Gil (last year, hope he remembers) if I could post it on the blog.  And I trust my delay will be your future pleasure!

The soup should be started the night before you plan on serving it, since it needs to sit for 12 hours.  I suggest using dark, high acid tomatoes and Sungold cherry tomatoes, but any garden tomato is a winner in August.  You might want to reserve some of the vegetables for a little garnish in each bowl.  Straining the soup through a fine sieve is really an important step for a mind-blowing texture that will make your guests roll their eyes back into their heads in delight, but if you don’t have a sieve and don’t mind a more rustic finish, the blender will do.  You will still be loved.

Rabbit Bistro’s Watermelon Gazpacho

  • 2 lbs. assorted heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 pint basket heirloom cherry tomatoes
  • 1.5 lbs. clean watermelon, no seeds
  • 1 English cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 baguette, diced
  • 1 medium Spanish onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 cup dry red wine, preferably Spanish
  • 1 cup olive oil, preferably Spanish
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large container, mix all ingredients well and press on the tomatoes and watermelon, ensuring that they release enough liquid to almost cover the mixture. Cover and place in refrigerator for at least 12 hours. Blend, in a blender, in batches, and pass through a fine sieve.  Serve in chilled bowls.  Serves approximately 8.

one of the best appetizers i’ve ever had: rabbit bistro

And there may even be a couple left, not sure.  Every Friday, Chef Gabriel Gil posts an appetizer and entree special on the Rabbit Bistro Facebook page.  They’re always fascinating, often mysterious, and sometimes challenging.  Separate the boys from the men, that’s what I say.  If you want to try it, relax your inhibitions a bit (might I suggest a cocktail special first?) and trust him.  I know this is contrary to the Eugene Way and the increasingly loathsome American practice of dietary eliminations and inspecting menus for their clinical traits.  So don’t go if you’re worried your needs won’t be met or you use “protein” to describe what you’re ordering for dinner.

But if you want to delight your tastebuds and widen your horizons…

How about a toothsome, cured and smoked venison carpaccio with the texture and flavor of pastrami sashimi?  It was brilliant, BRILLIANT, served with miner’s lettuce, slices of roasted rutabaga and perfect pickled tart apple, malt mayo (just a skosh too much), and iced milk that kept it cold and melted its milkiness down the mountain of cured protein, er, deer.

The picture, of course, doesn’t do it justice.  I rarely take pictures at Rabbit because the lighting doesn’t encourage it (and I’m the first to acknowledge it’s an awful habit, not to be encouraged at all), but I just had to share this one.  I wanted to lick the plate, pick it up and lick it.

We’re going to have Gabriel on Food for Thought on KLCC next Sunday, April 1, at noon, when I next co-host, so we can talk more about the culinary Renaissance in Eugene and what the Rabbit brings to the scene.  We’ll talk about ketchup, the Rabbit’s move downtown, and all manner of and creative possibilities for the future.  Tune in!  This Sunday (tomorrow), I hear that the delightful folks from Indie Pop will be there.


niblets: september song edition

This tomato is absolutely tired of the heat.  Hear me complain about it, and myriad other issues, on my first co-hosting gig on KLCC’s Food for Thought, this Sunday, September 11, at noon.  We’ve got a great show planned with a special guest from a local pizzeria (who also co-founded a prominent organic pasta company — any guesses?).

If you’re longing for East Coast summers at the shore, stroll over to PartyCart for their tarragon-shrimp roll (above).  It’s an interpretation of a lobster roll, and I daresay better than most lobster rolls out there with homemade grilled, buttered bread rigged out like a hotdog roll.  Plus, fresh-as-can-be Oregon bay shrimp.  And you don’t have to fight a hurricane to get it!

I ran into my friend Richard there, co-proprietor of the almost-famous Indy Pop soda company, who told me over a watermelon-ginger green soda that they’re working hard to roll out soda syrups for restaurant set-ups.  Soon, they’ll be bigger than Coke!  And speaking of cola, a new raspberry cola flavor is in the works. Great article on Indy Pop in the Eugene Weekly Chow! section recently, too.

On the other side of the lot, business was booming for Red Wagon Creamery.  Eugene’s new cult ice cream!  I watched them sell out every flavor by 8 p.m.  Co-owner and wit Stuart shared his growing experience with making natural bases and what goes in to other ice creams.  All I can say is check your labels, folks –yuck!  I was particularly pleased to see that their Buttered Corn ice cream will still be around for the near future.  It’s delicious, a buttery, icy version of kettle corn made with local Bodacious sweet corn and organic butter.

Yeah, that stuff.  Mmmm….

In other news, the Willamette Farm & Food Coalition is at it again, with a series of fundraising dinners with local restaurants.  Upcoming WFFC dinners include Marché, The Davis, and Ratatouille Bistro.  Next up, a delicious partnership with The Rabbit Bistro (update your web menu for cryin’ out loud, Rabbits!).  I’m a huge Rabbit fan, and would strongly suggest you set aside your inhibitions and try this set menu dinner, featuring some of our best local food:

On Tuesday September 20th Chef Gabriel Gil of the Rabbit Bistro will offer a 5-course dinner showcasing foods from Creative Growers and Boondockers’ Farm, with wine pairings from Willamette Valley vineyards.

Tickets are $80 (50% of which benefits WFFC) and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets. Doors open at 6pm.

This event will be limited to the first 40 folks who sign up, so if you are a fan of Chef Gil’s at the Rabbit, don’t hesitate, order your tickets now!

Over at the Lane County farmers market, harvest is underway.  I was pleased and delighted to see that Mountain View Farm out of Junction City had not only red and green okra, but local sweet potatoes, too. That’s what I like about the South (Willamette Valley)!

Ross Penhallegon of Lane County Extension, for those of you who don’t know him, is a fabulous resource for what’s happening locally with our major crops.  Read all of his informative, timely, haiku-like field reports on the OSU Garden Hints Forum on Facebook.  This one was posted on Wednesday:

Apples ripening nicely.
Asian pears – about ready.
Peaches – nice but nearing end.
Plums – near ripe but small crop.
Veggies – very good.
Tomatoes – coming on full scale.
Few insects still.
Enjoy the weather.

As we venture into tomato canning and salsa season, I’d like to remind you that tomatoes are one of those risky foods to can if you don’t use an approved recipe.  There’s much more variance in acidity than there used to be in tomatoes, so it’s essential to waterbath-can with lemon juice or pressure-can. Try the Extension recipes in the downloadable .pdf files, “Canning Tomatoes and Tomato Products” and “Salsa Recipes for Canning.” I’d suggest the recipe for chile salsa, if you like hot peppers, or tomato paste salsa if you like it thick.  Too many green tomatoes?  Clicky here!

There are also fall strawberries and raspberries, summer’s last hurrah.  Not the best for jams, but pick up a flat to freeze, or dry the strawberries with your Gravenstein apples, now ready for preserving at a number of local farms.

And don’t forget the fish for a simple grilled outdoor supper! Fisherman’s Market reports this morning:

Fresh fish in today: Blue Marlin, Sashimi Ahi Tuna, Oregon Albacore Tuna, True Cod, and Snapper! Also fresh Columbia River Chinook, Alaskan Halibut, and Ling Cod! Or get some fresh shellfish: Live Oregon Bay Crab, Main Lobster, Coos Bay Oysters, Savory Clams, Blue Mussels, Sea Scallops, and for a limited time Bay Scallops from Mexico!