Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

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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June 19, 2014

Rice Salad, a Summer Tradition

I wasn’t thinking about rice salad until I read the latest post on Gastronauta, my favorite Italian food site. Blogger Cristina Rombola talks about her family’s take on this summer classic, so easy to stash in the fridge for snacking or pack for beach trips and picnics.

Now I can’t wait to try their rice salad.

According to Rombola, the essential additions to an insalata di riso are giardiniera (pickled vegetables), canned tuna, cherry or grape tomatoes, small cubes of ham and cheese.  The recipe also includes fresh peas, beets and the option of adding mayonnaise to the olive oil dressing.

In my run-up to making this rice salad, I might whip up a batch of giardinera–the colorful pickled vegetables keep well and are great to have on hand as an ingredient, sandwich side or antipasto platter component. But if I’m feeling lazy, I’ll buy giardiniera n a jar.

Even if your Italian is limited to “ciao” and “grazie,” you can figure out how to make the Gastronauta salad with the help of an Italian dictionary and metric scale.

Or you can try MY rice salad, with somewhat different add-ins: roasted bell peppers, fennel or celery, and snipped fresh herbs.

What these two recipes have in common are makings that hit the right flavor and texture notes:  crunchy, soft and savory, tangy. Whichever version you make–theirs, mine or your own–you can’t lose.

Rice Salad with Roasted Peppers and Mozzarella

(from Piatto Unico: When One Dish Makes a Real Italian Meal)

Makes 4 to 5 servings

½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of a small lemon (3 to 4 tablespoons)
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice
2 small red and/or yellow bell peppers, roasted, peeled and cut in small squares
½ cup diced fennel bulb or celery
¼ cup black Mediterranean olives, pitted, halved or slivered
¼ cup chives, basil or flat-leaf parsley leaves, snipped in small pieces with scissors
6 to 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced small
2 cups baby arugula, optional

1.  In a serving bowl large enough to hold the salad, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

2. Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full of water and a small handful of salt. Add the rice, stirring well, and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes. Turn into a colander or strainer and cool under a gentle stream of running water; drain well.  Transfer to the bowl with the dressing and stir gently.

3. Mix the bell pepper, fennel, olives (if using), and chives into the rice. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed.  Let the flavors blend for up to an hour at room temperature (or longer, refrigerated).

4. Just before serving, fold in the mozzarella. Pass the serving bowl or serve in shallow bowls lined with baby arugula.

 

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May 16, 2014

Lemon Ricotta Gelato, Made at Home

lemon ricotta gelato

Researching my Tampa Bay Times article on the best gelato in Florence, Italy, was a good excuse for guilt-free gorging. Now I’m thousands of miles away, consoling myself with my own lemon ricotta gelato.

The idea of making gelato at home occurred to me during an interview with Silvana Vivoli of the renowned gelateria Vivoli. Americans love exotic flavors, but she told me her Florence customers’ top choices are crema, chocolate and strawberry.

Crema? It’s an egg-based custard gelato. The best gelaterias take pride in the honest goodness of their crema–and without masking flavors, lesser gelaterias can’t hide. Sometimes crema is flavored with vanilla or lemon zest, but not necessarily. Crema was the first flavor Silvana’s grandfather made when Vivoli opened during the ’30s.  (Fior di latte is the other pale gelato you’ll see in Italy–the difference is it’s made just with milk and cream, no eggs.)

Could I make crema successfully at home? Silvana shrugged: Sure. Use the best eggs, milk and cream you can get, she advised. And, before freezing the custard, refrigerate it overnight so the flavors mature.

The next decision was how to flavor my gelato. I wanted something different, without straying too far from a straight-out crema. I decided on vanilla and for emphatic lemoniness, both lemon zest and limoncello, the Southern Italian lemon liqueur. And ricotta, because I always enjoy eating ricotta gelato in Italy and rarely find it here, even in Tampa Bay’s top-rated Paciugo, just a three-minute walk from my home.

Making the crema base was a simple matter of “tempering” the beaten eggs by gradually adding the hot liquid and then cooking the mixture until it thickened. While the mixture chilled overnight in the fridge, excess liquid drained off the ricotta, set over a strainer.

The next day I tasted the gelato and–brava, me! Maybe not the best I’ve ever tasted but certainly the best I’ve made, with a deliciously creamy texture that doesn’t turn icy when frozen.

I love the simple goodness of crema and the fact that it goes with anything. If you want to embellish beyond what’s here, soak small-diced dried Mission figs in limoncello before adding to the custard mixture. Or drizzle the gelato with sweetened berry puree or a rich chocolate sauce.

Lemon Ricotta Gelato

Makes about 1 quart

4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 large pinch sea salt
2 tablespoons limoncello liqueur (optional)
1 cup whole-milk ricotta

1. With a whisk or electric mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until it reaches a pale yellow, creamy consistency.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and cream over medium heat until steaming. Gradually add about ½ cup of the hot liquid to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Blend into the milk mixture, stirring, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the vanilla, lemon zest, sea salt and limoncello (if using). Cool.

3. Transfer the custard to a nonreactive container, cover and chill for several hours or overnight. Scrape the ricotta into a small strainer positioned over a bowl. Chill for the same length of time.

4. Thoroughly mix the drained ricotta into the custard. Freeze until firm in an electric ice cream maker.  Shortly before serving, move to the refrigerator or kitchen counter until soft enough to scoop easily.

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April 16, 2014

Asparagus, Ham & Ricotta Pie: Beats Quiche

Even though we can get them anytime, foods like asparagus, ham and eggs still trigger thoughts of spring. That’s also when quiche gets its annual rebirth, at brunches and such. But here’s something better: this Italian asparagus, ham and ricotta pie, a variety of torta salata (“savory pie”).

The ricotta stands in for cream and, in place of quiche’s gruyère, there’s a generous sprinkling of pecorino cheese. This recipe (which appears in my cookbook Piatto Unico) came from our friend Sara, shown here in the garden of Il Poggiolo,  her Tuscan hilltop home.

Sara made her torta salata in less than an hour, using prepared dough made with butter and vegetable oil. In Italy this dough is packaged in a nifty triangular oblong and unfolds to fit in a pie/cake dish, with higher sides than ours. At home I usually make my own pasta frolla, an easy-to-work Italian dough containing egg, but you could substitute a high-quality prepared crust (avoid ones with hydrogenated fat).

Serve the pie warm or at room temperature as part of a brunch buffet, or pair it with dressed spring greens and crusty bread for a one-course meal.

Asparagus, Ham and Ricotta Pie

Makes 6 servings

Unbleached all-purpose flour, for dusting
Pastry dough for a single-crust pie, or a prepared crust
1/2 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
1 medium red or yellow onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces prosciutto cotto (available in some U.S. delis) or other cooked ham cut in ½-inch cubes
4 large eggs
1 cup whole-milk or part-skim ricotta
1/3 cup grated aged pecorino, Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
2 to 3 tablespoons snipped parsley or basil leaves
½ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. If rolling the crust: Lightly dust a marble pastry board or other smooth surface with flour. Roll the dough into a disk about 11 inches in diameter, dusting the top  as necessary with a little more flour to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch Pyrex pie plate; press it into the pan; trim all but ½ inch of overhanging edges with kitchen shears or a knife; flute the edges or finish as you like. Chill in the refrigerator while preparing the filling.

2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Angle cut the asparagus in 1-inch lengths. Halve the onion, pole to pole, and cut crosswise in thin slices.

3.  Fill a small saucepan two-thirds full of cold water and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and cool under running water.

4. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the onion until soft and golden, about 10 minutes; cool. Add the asparagus and ham.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add the ricotta and ½ cup water, whisking until well blended. Stir in half of the pecorino cheese, the parsley, salt and pepper.

6. Spread the asparagus and ham mixture in the pie shell. Add the ricotta-egg mixture and use a spatula to distribute it evenly and smooth the top. Sprinkle the remaining pecorino on top.

7. Bake the pie on a rack in the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes or until the bottom crust is well browned. Move to a rack in the top third of the oven and continue to cook until the filling is set, 10 to 15 minutes. The top doesn’t necessarily brown much; if you want a deeper hue, brush with melted butter or sprinkle on extra cheese in the last minutes of cooking. Cool for at least 10 minutes on a rack before serving.

Variations

  • This pie takes well to other vegetable combinations–sauteed zucchini and mushrooms, for example.
  • Salami or cured pancetta cut in small pieces could be substituted for the ham. It’s fine to omit cured meats altogether, but the filling may need a little more seasoning (salt, pepper, herbs) if you do.

 

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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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