Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

December 18, 2014

Sicilian Tuna, Potato & Caper Salad

photo by Tina Rupp

The holidays are here, bringing a parade of delicious but rich party nibbles. If you’re like me, sometimes you have to step back and just have a salad for dinner.  This one satisfies the yen for fresh greens and vegetables, but the tuna and potatoes add heft, turning what would otherwise be a side salad into a satisfying meal.

When I chose this tuna, potato and caper salad for a cooking demo at the Saturday Morning Market, I realized I could get virtually all the ingredients from the vendors. Organic lettuce and other produce come from Worden Farm, owned and operated by two Ph.D.s in southwest Florida. Olive oil and white wine vinegar from Puglia from Tampa-based V Spicery make a lovely vinaigrette.

A good brand of canned tuna would be fine in this salad,  but I decided instead to use a special technique for poaching fresh tuna in olive oil. Martin Fisher ordered the tuna for me. If you’re not familiar with Fisher’s, his stand, check it out. Any given Saturday Martin can be seen deftly filleting grouper, snapper, mackerel, whatever the catch of the week might be.

Sicilian Tuna, Potato and Caper Salad

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut in small dice
1 large tomato or roasted red bell pepper
1 celery stalk, angle cut in thin slices (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 small sweet onion, halved pole to pole, cut in slivers
1 to 2 tablespoons capers (preferably salt-cured), rinsed
4 cups torn salad greens
7 ounces good-quality canned tuna or fresh tuna poached in olive oil (recipe follows)
Small black olives, such as Gaeta

1.  Combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste in a medium bowl.

2. Place the potatoes in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Drain and cool under running water. Add to the bowl with the dressing and gently turn the potatoes until coated.

3. Halve the tomato and scoop out the insides; cut the shell in thin strips. Alternatively, cut a roasted pepper in strips. Add to the potatoes along with the celery, onion and capers.

4. Line 4 plates with the greens and spoon the salad over them. Arrange the tuna and olives on top. Makes 4 servings.

Tuna Poached in Olive Oil: Cut 1 pound of boneless fresh tuna in large chunks and coat with 1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt. Pack tightly in a medium saucepan or small skillet. Add1 rosemary sprig, 1 garlic clove, several peppercorns, a bay leaf and olive oil to cover (about 1 cup). Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook very gently until just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Cool. Transfer the pan contents to a ceramic container or glass jar. Refrigerate for up to a week. To use the tuna, break into smaller pieces. When it’s all gone, discard the oil.

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Italian food, Italian ingredients, salads, Seafood, Sicily, Tampa Bay, travel, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

December 12, 2014

What to Do with that Panettone

This is the time of year when Italian delis and e-commerce sites showcase those imposingly tall boxes, each one housing the dome-shaped sweet Christmas bread called panettone. There’s a good chance you’ll receive a panettone as a gift or, beguiled by the sheer size of the box, sweep one into your shopping cart.

Then what?

First, a bit of background. Panettone (“big bread”) originated in Milan and once bakers figured out how to make a shelf-stable version of this regional delicacy, spread far beyond.  You can buy a panettone like the one in my photo for about $8, or opt for the $70 Pasticceria Biasetto panettone, made with long-rising natural starter, Sicilian almonds and organic eggs from the baker’s neighbor.

I don’t agree with the panettone-hating Guardian writer who compared the taste of these traditional dome-shaped Christmas cakes to “Gandhi’s flipflop after three months in the desert.”  But I know where she’s coming from.  All too often, panettone has a dryish consistency that makes you want to quit after a bite or two. And the flavors don’t exactly sing.

Personally, I think there’s something to be said for the versions enhanced with extra ingredients. There’s panettone crusted with hazelnuts, panettone marbled with chocolate, panettone laced with Amarena cherries. Last year I wrote about my favorite, Panbriacone, a panettone-based “drunken” sweet bread spiked with passito, vin santo or rum. But the Bonci family’s production is so small their products aren’t exported to the U.S.–I’d have to catch a flight to Europe to enjoy it.

Back to that basic panettone problem. What to do with it? With its brioche-like texture, panettone is apparently great for desserts such as a lemon-curd bread pudding. I also like the idea of serving slices with zabaglione or crema di mascarpone, as one blogger suggested.

But nah, not this holiday season. If I’m going to bake, it’ll be biscotti or the bûche de Noel I’ve been planning to make for the last decade or two. Here are four ideas that won’t keep you in the kitchen.

Panettone Cubes: Cut the panettone in 2-inch cubes and pile in a pretty bowl, as one of my friends did when we met recently for Italian conversation. Accompanied by caffe latte, it was just the right thing to spur verb-retrieving brain cells at 8 a.m. Equally pleasant in the afternoon with tea or a glass of spumante wine. This is the way to go with a higher-end panettone, which is more likely to be moist.

Panettone Toast: Toast panettone slices until golden brown. Spread with butter and perhaps a bit of marmalade or fig preserves.

Panettone French Toast: Cut the bread in thin wedges and soak in your usual mixture of beaten egg and milk. No need for extra seasonings. Fry in melted butter until  nicely browned and serve with maple syrup and fruit salad.

Panettone “Churros”: Cut strips from panettone slices. Dip and fry in the same way as the French toast. Coat with a mixture of sugar and finely grated citrus zest.


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Baked Goods and Sweets, holiday foods, Italian delis, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Italian lifestyle, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

October 27, 2014

Zucchini Stuffed with Farro and Goat Cheese

Stuffed vegetables don’t show up much in restaurants, here or in Italy. But turn the pages of a cookbook or food magazine meant for home cooks and it becomes clear that Italians will stuff just about anything.

Bell peppers, tomatoes,  eggplant, artichokes and squash (including patty pans and zucchini) are seeded, scooped or otherwise emptied to make way for a savory filling. In the case of escarole and cabbage leaves, it’s a wrap job.

Stuffing can be a method with frugality at its heart, a way to extend an expensive protein such as meat or seafood. But the impulse to stuff vegetable is more likely driven by creativity, a zest for celebrating a particular kind of produce by uniting it with interesting new partners.

Often the filling is based on fresh bread crumbs or rice, but couscous makes a great filling…and so do farro and barley. In this recipe. walnuts echo the nutty wholesomeness of the grain, while goat cheese adds tangy richness.

Zucchini Stuffed with Farro, Goat Cheese and Walnuts

(from Piatto Unico, by Toni Lydecker)

Makes 4 servings

Sea salt or kosher salt
¾ cup pearled farro or barley
4 large zucchini
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots or half a small onion, finely chopped
¼ cup walnuts, toasted and broken in pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 ounces goat cheese or semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese (feta is fine)
2 cups prepared or homemade marinara sauce

1. Combine 1 1/2 cups water and ½ teaspoon salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; add the farro; adjust the heat to a simmer and cook until tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

2. While the farro is cooking, cut off and discard the zucchini ends. Halve the zucchini lengthwise.  Fill a large, broad saucepan with 1 inch water and bring to a simmer. Lay the zucchini halves flat in a steamer insert, cover and steam until a knife penetrates easily, about 10 minutes. Transfer the zucchini to a cutting board or other work surface. Cool until they can be handled.

3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. With a spoon, scoop out the zucchini pulp, leaving a shell about ½ inch thick. Sprinkle the zucchini insides lightly with salt. Roughly chop the pulp.

4. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute the shallots until golden. Add the zucchini pulp and cook briefly. Add the farro, walnuts and thyme. Fold in the goat cheese. Season with more salt, if needed, and pepper.

5. Preheat the oven to 350F. Spread the marinara sauce over the bottom of a large rectangular casserole dish. Spoon some of the farro-goat cheese mixture into a zucchini shell, pressing lightly in order to mound more on top. Place it in the casserole dish and repeat with the other zucchini.

6. Bake the stuffed zucchini until heated through and lightly browned on top. Spread some of the marinara sauce over the bottom of dinner plates or shallow soup bowls. Top with two zucchini halves per serving.

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September 18, 2014

Chickpea “Pizza” with Mushrooms and Tomatoes

My favorite dish during a four-day stay in Vancouver:  a crisp chickpea-flour flatbread topped with sautéed local chanterelles, buffalo mozzarella and luscious heirloom tomatoes. The chef of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill, Pino Posteraro, was looking to do something different, he told us, and he succeeded.

Plus, for those who care, the chickpea flour makes this dish gluten free.

I’ve been thinking about that little masterpiece ever since. So today, back home in the opposite corner of the continent, I set out to make it.

I figured Chef Pino’s crust was a riff on farinata, a Ligurian flatbread I remember as an outrageously good olive oil-soaked treat. But thinner and crisper than what I tasted there. After a bit of research, I realized it’s a “pizza” in quotes because there’s no yeast and kneading. Instead it’s made from a thin pancake (think crepes) batter.

Turns out the chickpea flour (aka garbanzo bean flour) is easy to find–among an array of Bob’s Red Mill products at Rolling Oats, a local health-food store. And the little flatbreads are easy to make, too. My broiling/pizza stone method worked fine. You can also cook the flatbreads stovetop in a crepe pan or on a griddle–but I found they still needed a trip to the oven to crisp up.

OK, my flatbreads were not quite as crisp as Chef Pino’s. But the texture and taste were irresistibly coarse and nutty. Savory shiitakes stood in for his wild chanterelles. The tomatoes I had on hand were fat grape tomatoes, not heirlooms, but they rose to the occasion once bathed in olive oil and a French quince vinegar called vinaigre de Coing.

All in all, delicious. I’ll be making these chickpea “pizzas” again and hope you will, too.

chickpea flatbread closeup

Chickpea “Pizzas” with Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Micro Greens

Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings

1 cup chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan

8 ounces chanterelles (or settle for shiitake caps), cut in small pieces
Extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, slivered
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium tomatoes or 12 cherry/grape tomatoes
Balsamic or quince vinegar (or any vinegar with a touch of sweetness)
4 to 6 ounces buffalo or regular mozzarella, cut in large cubes
Microgreens, frisee or watercress sprigs

1. Mix the chickpea flour, salt, thyme and pepper together in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in enough water (about 1 cup) to make a thin batter (as for crepes). Stir in the olive oil. Let the batter stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

2. Saute the mushrooms over medium high heat in a little olive oil, stirring in the garlic toward the end. Season with salt and pepper. Cut the tomatoes in small wedges or cubes. Drizzle them generously with olive oil and more sparingly with vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.

3. If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

4. Heat a crepe pan or small heavy skillet 6 or 7 inches in diameter, and brush with olive oil. Off heat, pour about 1/4 cup of the batter into the pan and swirl to cover the bottom. Switch the oven setting to broil. Cook on the pizza stone or top oven rack until lightly browned, about 2 minutes; turn and broil briefly on the other side. Continue making crusts with the remaining batter.

5. Spread the mushrooms over the flatbreads. Arrange the mozzarella on top. Broil the topped crusts for about 1 minute, until the mozzarella softens but before it melts.

6. Top with the dressed tomatoes and microgreens.


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July 16, 2014

Wild Pacific Salmon in Parchment

sockeye salmon, ready for wrapping

You can find wild Pacific salmon other times of year, but June into August is really its season. At my two sources in St. Pete–Sammy’s, a wholesale operation with a retail counter and Fresh Market, a local supermarket–the salmon are definitely running.

While the supply lasts, I’m buying wild salmon every week to grill, poach and steam in parchment.

I used to think sockeye salmon (also sold as Copper River salmon) was inferior, perhaps because that’s the kind typically found in a can. But now it’s my favorite salmon species.

Sockeye salmon’s odd name comes from the word suk-kegh, meaning “red fish,” in the language of an obscure indigeous people who lived on rivers in British Columbia. I like the intensely orange-red color sockeye has when raw. But I also love the flavor, more pronounced than the king salmon sold alongside. That’s a matter of taste, however, and many people prefer milder-tasting king salmon.

salmon, wrapped in parchment

I cook wild salmon lots of good ways. Marinated in a dressing of olive oil, mustard, maple syrup and soy, and then grilled with smoky cedar chips. Poached and chilled with a garlicky, herby mayo on the side. And, best of all, this method for steaming salmon under wraps–whether in parchment paper or aluminum foil. The fillets are tucked inside on a bed of couscous, sprinkled with good ingredients found in so many Italian fish recipes–capers, olives, lemons, olive oil, sea salt.  Here’s how to do it.

Sockeye Salmon in Parchment

Makes 2 servings

salmon, unwrapped

2/3 cup large-grain Israeli couscous (also called pearl couscous)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons + 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill leaves or snipped chives
¾ pound sockeye salmon or other wild Pacific salmon
1 lemon
8 black oil-cured olives or other Mediterranean olives
1 tablespoon capers (preferably salt cured), rinsed well
1 Peppadew pepper, cut in slivers (optional)*

1. Combine 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add the couscous and simmer, covered, until tender, about 5 minutes. Cool until warm (the couscous should absorb all the liquid). Gently mix with a drizzle of olive oil, just enough to keep it from sticking, and 2 teaspoons of the dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Preheat the oven to 500°F.  Remove the salmon skin by pushing a sharp knife between the skin and the flesh. Cut in two portions. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cut ½ of the lemon in thin slices; squeeze the juice of the remaining lemon half.

3. Tear off two pieces of parchment paper, each one 18 inches x 13 inches. Draw a large heart on each one with a pencil and cut it out.**

4. Open one of the hearts and lay it on a baking sheet. Spoon half of the couscous on the right half. Top with a salmon filet. Drizzle with olive oil and half of the lemon juice. Lay half of the lemon slices down the middle. Scatter half of the remaining 2 teaspoons dill, olives, capers and Peppadew pepper (if using) on top. Fold over the left side of the heart and fold/crimp along the edges to close it. Repeat with the remaining heart and ingredients.

5. Bake for 12 minutes. Serve on dinner plates, allowing the packets to rest for 5 minutes or more (delicious even at room temperature). Open the packets at the table and slide the contents onto plates.

* A round red pepper that is piquant in flavor–often found on olive bars.

* *Alternatively, tear off an 18-inch piece of heavy aluminum foil. With the shiny side down, layer the couscous, salmon fillets and other ingredients as described above. Draw together the long edges of foil and fold over, crimping to prevent leakage but leaving room inside for heat circulation.


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