Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

March 8, 2017

Perfect Eggplant Parmesan

Nobody needs more than one recipe for eggplant parmesan, any more than you need multiple methods for perfect scrambled eggs or a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

Problem was my eggplant parmesan recipe, acquired years ago from an Italian-American cook, wasn’t perfect. The eggplant slices were brushed with oil and broiled. It contained ricotta as well as mozzarella and parmesan.  Sounds okay but the result was always a bit disappointing. Eventually I drifted away from it.

Then I tasted eggplant parm–otherwise known as melazane alla parmigiana–as executed by Maria Silvestri, co-owner of Casa del Pane in St. Pete Beach. Under a bronzed crust, a meltingly delicious marriage of fried eggplant, cheeses and tomato sauce.

At Casa del Pane, you can savor a mozzarella & grilled veggie sandwich made with Pugliese bread still warm from their ovens.  Or sip a cappuccino at the bar while chatting in Italian with a regular. Or stock up on artisanal pasta, regional wines and choice canned tomatoes.

But you can’t eat Anna’s eggplant parmesan at Casa del Pane. “It’s a family dish we enjoy at home, made the way I learned in Puglia,” she says.

Anna agreed to share the recipe for publication in Food + Art: Cooking around Tampa Bay with the Museum of Fine Arts (buy a copy if you haven’t already). To make sure I had it right, I asked lots of questions. Are the eggplants peeled? “I do but it’s the cook’s decision.” How thick are the slices? She held thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. What kind of canned tomatoes? “A good imported brand such as La Valle.” What else makes her version special?  ”No breadcrumbs! I think they make the dish too heavy.”

The eggplant is fried, after being dipped in flour and beaten egg, and I’ve never had a guest who didn’t ask for a second helping. I think there’s a connection. That never happened with my broiled eggplant parm.

I could give you the argument that, when food is fried properly, most of the oil stays in the pan. That happens to be true, but the real reason I make this classic dish Maria’s way: It tastes perfect.

Maria’s Eggplant Parmesan

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality plum tomatoes in puree
4 small eggplants (about 2½ pounds)
¾ cup all-purpose flour, or as needed
4 or 5 eggs
Vegetable oil
1 pound mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated, divided
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, grated, divided
1 cup basil leaves, divided

1. Make sauce: Saute onion with olive oil until golden in a medium saucepan. Add tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook at a brisk simmer, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon, until onion is cooked and tomatoes soften, about 10 minutes. Cool to warm. Using a blender or food processor, process to a chunky sauce.

2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Peel eggplant or not, depending on preference. Cut in ½-inch slices. Place flour in a shallow bowl and, in a second bowl, beat eggs with 1 teaspoon salt. Coat slices with flour on both sides, dusting off excess.  Dip in egg, allowing excess to drop off.

3. Fill large deep skillet with at least ½ inch vegetable oil. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Fry eggplant until golden brown on both sides. Drain on a platter lined with paper towels and blot with more paper towels.

4. Ladle sauce over bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking pan (see Note). Arrange a layer of eggplant on top. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and basil. Repeat layers, finishing with sauce and cheeses.

5. Bake uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes until bubbling and browned on top. Cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.

Note: In a smaller pan, you may need to repeat the sequence of layers three times rather than twice.


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Eggs and Cheese, Fruits and Vegetables, Italian food, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

January 24, 2017

Ribollita, Tuscany’s Divine Bread Soup

I learned to make ribollita many years ago from Livio, the gardener of an elegant villa in Florence. At the time it housed a center for advanced Renaissance studies and while my husband attended seminars, I was likely to be in the garden, talking to Livio.

The recipe was actually his sister’s and probably his mother’s before that. I doubt that Livio had ever made this thick bread soup himself, but he had precise ideas on how it should taste.

After he tasted my first batch, I noticed a troubled look on his face. After some pressing, he gave his verdict: a nice enough soup but not the genuine article. How had I cooked the onions, he asked. As it turned out, I had not browned them sufficiently, the essential first step for this full-flavored soup. I tried again, and this time Livio gave his blessing to my ribollita.

The name means “reboiled” but, as this story shows, it’s not a matter of just heating up any vegetable soup. The flavors need to be deeply satisfying. Carefully browned onions are one thing. If you can find it, Tuscan kale–otherwise known as lacinato or, in Tuscany itself, as cavolo nero,”black cabbage”–adds depth.

I think good beans make a difference too. White cannellini are the norm but the bag of Rancho Gordo cranberry beans from my stocking (not last year but two years ago) were staring reproachfully at me from the pantry. They may be unorthodox but they were fabulous.

Stale salt-free Tuscan bread is the classic choice for ribollita, and for good reason. It absorbs moisture and feathers into crumbs without turning gluey. Nothing else works as well but, unless you are making this soup in Tuscany, you’ll likely have to settle for any sturdy loaf that pushes back a little when pressed.

You could eat ribollita just after it’s made, but that’s so wrong. Hold off  for a day to let the flavors mingle and the genius of this winter soup to emerge. The last step, once soup and bread are in the bowl together: Drizzle with good Italian olive oil from the latest harvest.



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October 8, 2016

Tagliata con Rucola (AKA Italian Steak and Arugula Salad)

Rosy slices of grilled steak on a bed of dressed arugula, with Parmigiano Reggiano shavings and a few ripe tomato wedges. in 2016 that dish sounds pleasing but hardly surprising. In the summer of 1985,  though, during a sultry July in Tuscany, it seemed fresh and new. Suddenly this steak and arugula salad was everywhere.

I remember encountering tagliata con rucola for the first time in a hillside restaurant with a terrace, overlooking the steaming city of Florence, where we had gone to escape the heat. Looking around, I could see other customers digging into an appetizing toss of greens strewn artfully with strips of beef and cheese curls. I couldn’t wait to taste it.

Bistecca alla fiorentina has always been, of course, a standard offering of Tuscan restaurants. Usually an enormous slab of beef (traditionally, from the Chianina cow), cooked al sangue (very rare). And often accompanied by a salad that might include tomatoes. Slicing a steak, whether boneless or bone in, turns it into a tagliata di manzo and, somehow, placing the strips ON the salad with a few embellishments creates a perfect unity of flavors.

I don’t know which clever chef first assembled tagliata con rucola, which became a standard in home kitchens as well as restaurants.  Checking Italian sites such as, I scrolled through tagliata musings by cooks debating whether to rub olive oil on the steak before grilling, or suggesting black Hawaiian sea,  or rhapsodizing over the merits of a pizzico (bit) of butter or drizzle of traditional Balsamic vinegar after grilling the steak.

Returning from an early fall visit to friends in North Carolina, I tucked green Cherokee tomatoes into every corner of my suitcase. When they ripened, I set aside two from this precious bounty, bought a prime steak (go to Locale, St. Pete people) and some arugula from the farmer’s market. With hardly any effort, we had a feast.

When tomatoes are out of season, no need to wait until next year for tagliata con rucola. Substitute roasted potato wedges. Or chunks of roasted or pickled beets. Or braised sweet-sour cipolline onions.

Italian Steak and Arugula Salad

(makes 2 servings)

1 pound boneless well-marbled beef steak such as New York strip steak or ribeye
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces arugula
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 or 2 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
Chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese, or 2 to 3 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1. Rub both sides of the steak with a little olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Let stand until room temperature.

2. Prepare a hot fire on a gas or charcoal grill. Grill the steak, turning once, until seared and cooked to rare or medium rare (about 8 minutes, depending on thickness). Transfer with tongs to a cutting board and let stand for a few minutes until the juices are reabsorbed.

3. Toss the arugula in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, more or less, the lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange greens on 2 dinner plates.

4. Slice steak across the grain at a diagonal and place in the center of the greens. Using a vegetable peeler, cut shavings from the Parmigiano wedge, letting them fall directly onto the salad. Place tomato wedges around the edges of the plates.


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September 2, 2016

Pickled Vegetables, Especially Giardiniera

Pickling isn’t just for cucumbers anymore. It’s a huge trend, whether taking the form of traditional mixes like Italian giardiniera or the wildly creative combinations of someone like Ilene Sofranko, owner of Urban Canning Company here in St. Pete.

Their exuberantly flavored offerings include chili and fennel Brussels sprouts, sraracha peppered okra and ginger-spiced beets. Sign up for one of Ilene’s classes–the upcoming session on making chow chow from summer’s end vegetables, for instance–and she’ll spill her hardwon pickling secrets.

I’ve made pickles myself–most often giardiniera (“from the garden”), Italy’s most famous pickled-vegetable combo. The brine is sweetened with a little sugar, giving it the sweet-sour flavor profile much loved in Italy. I start with cauliflower, carrots and onions, then add whatever is seasonal or appealing–perhaps peppers, green beans, fennel, zucchini. It’s important to take care in cutting the vegetables–the pieces need to be about the same size and look pretty.

A new cookbook called Preserving Italy, by Domenica Marchetti, is an excellent source on the Italian art of pickling. I earmarked a recipe for wine-spiked julienne carrots to remember when I run across heirloom carrots and instead made her pickled beets and spring onions. Apple cider, though not a traditional Italian ingredient, gives fruity verve to this pickled combo, with spicy notes added by juniper berries, peppercorns, cloves and bay leaves.

Domenica and Ilene can tell you how to do the water-bath canning that keeps jars shelf stable for up to a year, but I don’t bother with that. However satisfying it would be to survey shelves of jewel-like pickled vegetables, I don’t have the space–or, frankly, the inclination. Instead, I prepare a small batch, transfer the vegetables and their brine to jars and refrigerate for a few days to infuse the flavorings. Then we eat them at will, always returning the jars to the fridge, in the course of about a month.

How to eat giardiniera and other pickled veggies? Drain well and eat on the side with burgers, fish, roast chicken or just about anything, really. Add to an Italian rice salad. Chopped a bit finer, they turn into a condiment with a special affinity for sandwiches. In our Chicago days, I remember giardiniera on Italian beef sandwiches. The mix can also be subbed for olive salad in a muffuletta and would be delicious on a hot dog.

Or have a party (I recommend a barbecue) and clear out your pickled vegetables in one fell swoop. When you feel like making more, see what’s in season and go for it.


Makes about 2 quarts

10 ounces cipolline or pearl onions
1 small head cauliflower
3 medium carrots
3 celery stalks or 1 small head fennel
4 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 bay leaves
2 small fresh or dried hot peppers
1 teaspoon black or mixed peppercorns

1. Bring a medium saucepan of cold water to a boil. Add the onions and cook for about 15 seconds. Drain, cool under running water and slip off the skins; clip the tips with shears as needed but do not cut off the stem ends (the onions would fall apart). Separate the cauliflower florets from the stalks and cut both in small (1- to 1 1/2-inch) pieces. Angle cut the carrots and celery in similar-sized pieces. Halve the onions if large and cut the garlic lengthwise in half. You should have about 2 pounds of vegetables altogether.

2. Combine the vinegars and olive oil with 1 1/2 cups cold water in a large saucepane. Add sugar, salt, bay leaves, hot peppers and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Add the cauliflower, carrots, celery, onions and garlic. When the liquid returns to a boil, adjust the heat to a brisk simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Cover and cool.

3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables into two quart jars or four pint jars. Make sure the vegetables are well covered with the brine. Refrigerate for a few days to blend flavors. Use within a month, discarding the bay leaves and peppercorns.


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June 8, 2016

Chilled Tomato Soup with a Smoky Undertone

I adore chilled soup when the weather is warm (as it is more often than not in Florida).  But the variations on gazpacho and vichyssoise that abound in restaurants, as well as my own kitchen, can get boring. So I got excited about a creative soup special at Brick & Mortar Kitchen & Wine Bar–cold tomato soup with a seductively smoky flavor.

“The tomatoes were in the smoker all day yesterday and they smelled fabulous,” our server told us.  I’ve seen chef Jason Ruhe at the Little Pond Farm stand at Saturday Morning Market, so when he came by to ask how I liked the soup, I wasn’t surprised to hear that was the source of the tomatoes.

June marks the end of Florida’s tomato season. (Crazy, right? Just as tomatoes come into season everywhere else.) So Chef Jason bought all the local tomatoes he could get his hands on to smoke, dry, can and otherwise preserve into the future.

As a condo dweller, I don’t have a smoker, so replicating his soup was out of the question. But, with dinner guests on the horizon and those flavors still in my mind, I thought of a work-around. In lieu of smoking the tomatoes, I sprinkled the thick slices with hickory salt before slow baking them for a couple of hours.

Next they went into the blender with cucumber and a sweet onion my aunt had sent from Texas, plus smoked paprika to reinforce the smoky flavor profile. I resisted the impulse to add sherry vinegar and garlic, touches that would take the soup in a familiar gazpacho direction.

The verdict?  My soup was paler in color and lacked the saturated smokiness that only a smoker can impart. But it tasted refreshing, with a distinctively smoky edge, and I loved the showy fresh corn,  zucchini and pea shoot garnishes. And yet another occasion to use my beloved vichyssoise dishes (early-marriage 1970s Williams Sonoma).

All the same, I’d order Brick & Mortar’s smoked tomato soup again in a heartbeat–or any of Chef Jason’s other inventive dishes.

Chilled Tomato Soup with Smoky Seasonings

Makes 6 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
7 medium tomatoes (about 3 pounds), trimmed and thickly sliced
Hickory salt
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 small sweet onion, peeled and cut in chunks
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

Garnishes: 1 1/2 cups blanched or sautéed fresh corn kernels and small-diced zucchini, pea shoots

1. Preheat the oven to 250°F. Smear a sheet pan with olive oil and arrange the tomato slices on top. Sprinkle both sides with hickory salt. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, turning once, until the tomatoes turn very soft and their color deepens.

2. Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, onion and paprika with 1/4 cup olive oil in a blender; puree until very smooth. Dilute with water if too thick. Taste and add more salt if needed. (For a silkier texture, pass the soup through a fine strainer or the fine disc of a food mill.)

3. Transfer the soup to a bowl and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. To serve: Pour into pretty glass bowls or martini glasses. Heap mixed corn and zucchini in the center and insert a small cluster of pea shoots.


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