Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

March 24, 2014

Beach Fare: Maltese Tuna Sandwich

It’s spring break time along Florida’s long coastline. Time to head for the beach, and the rest of the country won’t be far behind. So I’m happily packing beach towels and sunblock along with a couple of the Maltese tuna sandwiches I just learned to make.

I’ve never visited Malta, a tiny group of islands off the southern coast of Sicily. But a private demo in the kitchen of Mary Perry, a long-time Tampa Bay resident who came from Malta, was the next best thing.

“Everyone in Malta knows this beach sandwich,” she said, while spreading bread slices with tomato paste. She pressed them into a pool of olive oil and red wine vinegar, dotted with capers. Then came layers of onion, hard-cooked egg, fresh basil, tuna and cucumber.

Biting into the sandwich, I could taste the same Mediterranean flavors as in Sicily’s beach sandwiches (sometimes made with sardines or eggplant, but often tuna) or southern France’s pan bagnat. But put together in a whole different way.

Later Mary emailed the name of the sandwich: hobz biz-zejt u tadam. Okay, THAT’S a mouthful. If you want to try to say it, know that the z’s have a dot hovering over them (which my blog platform refuses to honor), altering the pronunciation in a way that Mary explained but I completely failed to comprehend. Clearly I won’t be taking up the study of the Maltese language, based on an Arab dialect that developed in Sicily and Malta between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D.

The sandwich name (hobz and so on) refers to crusty bread with olive oil and tomato.  So everything else, including the tuna, is sort of optional. But I’d rather load it all on. You can eat the sandwich right away but I’m thinking it will taste better mixed with salt breezes and a little sand.

Maltese Tuna Sandwich

Makes 2 sandwiches

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon capers, rinsed
Mrs. Dash seasoning
2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 large slices white or wholewheat bread
Several slices sweet red or white onion
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
Leaves from 2 basil sprigs
1 can (7 ounces) tuna, drained
1/2 small cucumber, thinly sliced

1. Pour the olive oil on a dinner plate. Sprinkle with the vinegar and scatter the capers over the surface. Sprinkle with Mrs. Dash seasoning. Spread the tomato paste over one side of the bread slices.

2. Press the tomato paste side of bread slices into the olive oil mixture. If any capers fail to stick, distribute them manually over the surfaces.

3. On the dressed side of two bread slices, layer the onion slices, eggs, basil leaves, tuna and cucumber. Top with the remaining bread slices.


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Sandwiches, Seafood, Sicily, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

February 21, 2014

Tale of a Black Truffle

cross section of a black truffle

Fresh truffles are usually available only to chefs,  but I can get them just by walking two blocks to my local farmer’s market.

Every Saturday at Fidel Gamboa’s stand, fresh truffles–black or white or both, depending on the season–are displayed in a case like the edible jewels they are.

These truffles, from Alba in Italy’s northwestern Piemonte region, are the real thing. Fidel grew up in Venezuela, studied to be an opera singer in Italy, and now is passionately devoted to introducing the world’s most prized truffles to America. “I feel like Christopher Columbus, teaching Italians about tomatoes,” he says.

As it happens, Fidel’s wife Teresa comes from Alba and it is a truffle-hunting family friend, Paolo Cerutti, who sends the overnight shipment each week. U.S. Customs, bless their bureaucratic hearts, clears the precious but perishable fungi in good time for the Saturday market. It’s been a great year for fresh truffles (both quality and quantity), according to Fidel, and thanks in part to a front-page article in the Tampa Bay Times, there’s usually a crowd at the stand.

I’ve tasted my way through their truffle-flavored honey, preserved truffles, creamy truffle spreads and truffle pasta. But I failed to spring for a fragrant white truffle during its brief November-December season, and that felt like a mistake. Black truffles continue into March, however, so when food-loving friends arrived for a weekend, I asked Fidel to save one for me.

The variety he calls pregiato is known scientifically as Melanosporum and colloquially as the Perigord truffle. It is not as celebrated as Alba’s white truffle, but at about $100 an ounce compared to $220 for the white ones, not as breath-taking a splurge. Those prices reflect the labor and uncertainty of searching for the gnarled fungi, which are unearthed by trained dogs under certain kinds of trees–especially hazelnut and oak, in the case of black truffles.

As Fidel lifted the case cover, a wave of truffle aroma rose. I chose one that weighed 1¼ ounces, ample for the four of us. Wearing white gloves, Fidel gently rubbed it with a soft brush. Wrapped in a paper towel and nestled in a plastic container against a Coolpak, it was mine.

I’ve tasted truffles in restaurants, but my only previous experience in owning a truffle was a white one we brought home from Alba. The heady aroma diminished a little every time we opened the container to sniff and, alas, it had lost most of its oomph by the time I recovered from jet lag enough to cope with it.

This time I was determined not to miss that window of freshness. The Italian approach to truffles to keep the dish simple, allowing the earthy flavor to shine through—so that night we sat down to freshly made tagliatelle with a light sauce of butter, cream, Parmigiano Reggiano, salt and pepper. The truffle shaver acquired during the Alba trip had gone missing. Instead, I used a mandoline on the finest setting. It made satisfactory shavings, substantial enough for us to appreciate not only the aroma, but the somewhat brittle texture of the truffle as we chewed.

We had only consumed about half of our little black knob, so the next morning we tried another classic: softly scrambled eggs topped with black truffle. This time we used a small handheld grater–perfect for the firm texture of a black truffle, thought perhaps not for a white one.

What to do with the remaining fragments? I shoved them into a jar of sea salt, turning it intensely aromatic by the next day. Burying them in Arborio rice would have been another option. I liked Fidel’s suggestion of making a compound butter with grated truffle and freezing it. And one of these days, I’ll try his father-in-law’s trick of combining truffle bits with anchovies–the saltiness preserves the mixture for up to six months–to use as a savory addition to pasta sauces and such.

Truffle oil might come to mind, but despite what many Internet sources say, you can’t stick a piece of truffle in olive oil and expect to end up with delectable truffle oil. Instead, the truffle will likely ferment and turn nasty tasting. Truffle oil is typically made with an essence, which is usually artificial. A more authentic product is a pâté or paste with olive oil plus a high proportion of truffles, and a price tag to match.

All in all, our black truffle weekend was good fun and definitely an education. if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Fidel’s stand or contact him at And, if you really get hooked, consider signing up for the trip he and Teresa are leading next fall, with destinations that include the white truffle auction in Alba and opera season in Parma.


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Eggs and Cheese, Pasta, Piemonte, Tampa Bay, travel, Uncategorized » 4 Comments

January 28, 2014

Veal Stew with Mushrooms and Peas, on Toast

Veal and mushroom stew, with just a touch of cream, is my idea of the perfect one-dish Sunday supper.

Ladled over toasted country-style bread, this piatto unico is Italian comfort food at its best. Share at the table with people you love–or follow my Sunday routine and take a tray to the sofa for an episode of Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad.

The dish is also good with lamb shoulder or stew meat, or you could substitute beef, but I prefer the delicacy of veal. The recipe belongs to the spezzatino category of rustic, gently simmered stews.

Italians would be more likely to serve the peas on the side, rather than as part of the stew. But I love the ease of one pour from the frozen-pea bag, and the pleasure of eating a few in every bite.

Veal Stew with Mushroom and Peas, on Toast

Makes 4 or 5 servings

(from Piatto Unico, my book on one-course Italian meals)

2 pounds bone-in veal shoulder steaks or 1 ¾ pounds boneless veal stew meat
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped shallot or onion
1 thick-cut (1/4-inch) slice pancetta, cut in small cubes (about 1/3 cup)
10 ounces crimini or white mushrooms, halved, thinly sliced
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup white wine
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups frozen baby peas
4 large slices white or whole-grain country-style bread

1. Blot the veal shoulder dry with paper towels. Trim it, discarding the fat but reserving the bones. Cut the lean meat in 1/2-inch cubes.

2. Over medium heat, heat enough oil (about 2 tablespoons) in a large straight-sided sauté pan. Cook the shallot and pancetta, stirring often, until the fat is rendered and the shallot and pancetta are lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms, cooking until they soften and release some of their liquid, about 8 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Scoop the contents of the pan into a bowl.

3. Heat a little more olive oil (about 1 tablespoon) over medium-high heat in the same pan. Cook the veal (in batches, if necessary) until lightly browned; season with salt and pepper. Stir and continue cooking until browned all over.

4.  Lower the heat to medium. Sprinkle with the flour; stir for a minute or two. Add the wine, letting it sizzle while scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula.

5. Return the reserved veal bones (if any) and mushroom mixture to the pan, and add ½ cup water. When it comes to a simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, partially covered, until very tender, about 1 ½ hours; add a little water from time to time if needed.

6. When the veal is tender, remove and discard the bones (if any). Stir in the cream and peas, and cook a few minutes longer until the peas are cooked through and the sauce thickens slightly.

7.  Toast the bread until crisp but not browned; slice in half diagonally. To serve: Arrange two toast halves in the center of each plate. Spoon the stew on top, letting it cascade over the sides of the toast.


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January 8, 2014

Clam Chowder with Italian Touches

Cedar Key, a charming town three hours north of Tampa Bay that once dubbed itself “the Venice of America,” ships farm-raised clams all over the country. So it’s a  great place to indulge in steamed clams, fried clams and, of course, clam chowder.

My husband and I hadn’t come here just for clams. After spending a weekend celebrating a friend’s birthday, we returned to this unspoiled fishing village on our own for a restorative visit.  Cedar Key pleasures are simple but sufficient: Wander down the two-block main street, stopping at the visitors’ center to bone up on the town’s 19th-century heyday as a center for oystering, shipping and manufacture of red cedar slats for pencils. Check out the excellent artists’ coop. Walk the abandoned rail line, now given over to songbirds and native plants. Watch sunsets over the island-strewn bay.

One day was spent in the company of Captain Carl Robinson, who sped us

across flats and into gorgeous estuaries in his air boat. We caught a zillion redfish, all of which failed to meet the 18-inch limit, but they were feisty and that’s what counts with fishing. Capt. Robinson is the fourth generation of fishermen in his family and figures he’ll be the last–his son decided to take up house painting instead.

The mixed seafood platter at Tony’s was tasty–fried fish, steamed clams, broiled sea scallops and other delicacies I could imagine eating on the coast of Italy. What the restaurant is really known for, though, is its “World Champion clam chowder,” winner of a national competition three years in a row. I’ve eaten it, but…eh. I have to say that rich, creamy chowder is not to my taste.

So, instead of stocking up on Tony’s chowder, I bought a 12-pound sack of Cedar Key clams to take home. I had a choice of small, medium and large–and took the advice of the guys on duty, who insisted that the larger ones, though a little more expensive, are a better value.

Then I set out to make clam chowder. The so-called Manhattan kind, with tomatoes but no béchamel sauce or cream. Inevitably, I headed in an Italian direction, using olive oil, wine and a good brand of imported plum tomatoes. And why use salt pork when pancetta would be so much better?

The clam chowder was good and, as I hoped, light enough for the shellfish flavor to shine through. No need to return to Cedar Key if I make it again–the town’s clams are available here in St. Petersburg. But I have plenty to other reasons to go back.

Clam Chowder Any Italian Would Love

Serves 4 to 6

5 pounds medium or large clams (about 4 dozen)
Kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup white wine
2/3 cup chopped red onion
2 ounces thick-cut pancetta or bacon, diced small
1 tablespoon olive oil
2/3 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes, with some of the puree
1 large Yukon Gold or other boiling potato, diced small
1 large stalk celery, diced small
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Scrub the clams to remove sand. Combine 2 quarts water with 1 tablespoon salt in a large bowl. Stir until it dissolves. Add the clams (add more water if necessary to submerge). Let stand for 2 hours to expel any sand.

2. Lift the clams out of the water and combine in a large skillet with the wine and 1/2 cup water. Steam, covered, removing them as the shells open. Cool, remove the clams with a spoon and roughly chop them.

3. Sauté the onion and pancetta with the olive oil in a medium saucepan until lightly browned. Stir in the tomatoes, potato and celery. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the clam broth into the saucepan and add enough water to cover the vegetables with a few inches to spare. Bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Continue cooking until the potato is tender.

4. Stir in the chopped clams and parsley (if using) shortly before eating. Serve with water crackers or, better yet, taralli.

Note: For a thicker consistency, stir in a little cornstarch dissolved in water toward the end of cooking.

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December 13, 2013

Panbriacone, Italy’s “Drunken Sweet Bread”

I’ve given and eaten many a Christmas panettone, and always cross my fingers it won’t be dry.

No chance of that with Panbriacone, a sweet bread with an eggy panettone base, all natural ingredients and a whopping 15-18% alcohol content. The name is a shortened form of pan dolce ubriaco, roughly translated as “drunken sweet bread.” After baking, it is injected with a dessert wine like vin santo or passito or a spirit such as rum, which preserves and keeps it moist for up to a year.

Panbriacone is made exclusively by the Bonci family in the Tuscan town of Montevarchi, and it comes with a sweet story I’m about to tell you. Nice gift, right? Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo agrees: “I’m a big fan of Bonci’s Panbriacone. Everytime I go to artisanal food trade shows, I stop to eat a piece. It is a fantastic product made by fantastic people.” But she doesn’t stock it for fear that American customers wouldn’t go for it.

In fact, the only online U.S. source for Panbriacone I found is A.G. Ferrari. So I’m

Gianmarco and Gianluca Bonci, shaping the dough

hoping through this post–probably futilely, but it is Christmas, after all–to set off a groundswell of demand for this hard-to-get product.

Silvio Bonci took over his father’s bakery and now his three sons are the third generation to enter the business. “Fifteen years ago, we set out to invent a new kind of artisanal bakery product–a sweet bread we could sell not only during the holidays but throughout the year.” The morning I visited, Silvio showed me the mega mixing bowl where yesterday’s mixture of flour, natural starter and water had generated big yeasty blisters on the surface, a stage known as the pre-impasto. To this he added butter, sugar, eggs and more flour, finishing with sultanas from Turkey and Zante currants from Greece.

Freshly made Panbriacone

The raisins are for a classic Panbriacone, but there are other versions. “When we find beautiful fresh fruit, we like to use it,” says Gianluca, the middle son. Last summer, for instance, they flavored breads with Amarena cherries and blackberries. For Moka Nero, the coffee flavor, they make espresso with a bar-sized machine.

Next a machine weighed and divided the dough into 70-gram blobs, which the two younger sons shaped and placed on baking sheets for transfer to sauna-like rising rooms. It takes 36 hours to make Panbriacone, so I didn’t see the entire process. But I did see the baked loaves cooling–upside down, allowing gravity to create a more rounded, uniform shape. And I watched the final stage, the bagnatura, during which the liqueur spurts into tiny tunnels punched throughout each round loaf.

Toward the end of the morning, Silvo pulled the madre from the refrigerator. He has used this natural starter his entire working life. He cut the sponge in slices, soaked them in water for 20 minutes and, after draining, added flour, water and a little honey, and

Silvio Bonci, kneading the starter for tomorrow's bread

churned the mixture in an electric mixer. After kneading, he tenderly wrapped the sponge in cloth and secured it with twine before returning to the refrigerator.

Panbriacone may be an invention only 15 years old, but its foundation is that madre, sustained through a daily routine that has endured since the Bonci family acquired it from a Piemontese baker, more than 60 years ago.

I haven’t yet ordered any of the Bonci breads here, but the rum Panbriacone I brought home last June was devoured during the Thanksgiving break. Delicious, and still perfectly moist.

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Baked Goods and Sweets, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Italian lifestyle, Tuscany, Uncategorized, Wine and Beverages » No Comments - Leave a comment...