Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

February 6, 2015

Mexican Squash Blossom Soup

Mexican squash blossom soup

Recently I sampled artisanal mescal, cicciarones-filled gorditas and flautas with hibiscus flowers in Mexico City. All memorable. But back home what I couldn’t wait to make was squash blossom soup.

Actually that was just one of several superb soups I tasted in this great city. At the Hilton Mexico City Reforma‘s terrace restaurant, our waiter set down a bowl with formations of congealed consommé. As he ladled hot broth, they dissolved into a rich soup with peas and bits of celery and carrot. So simple, but the aroma evoked a memory of what I think was the first homemade chicken soup I ever ate…as it happens, in Mexico City.

I spent a couple of months in Mexico City after college and the family cook in the home where I was staying made chicken soup every few days. I wasn’t too focused on food at the time but did have the good sense to notice it was a far cry from the Campbell’s soup I’d grown up on.

This time I sipped tortilla soup in the gorgeous Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, overlooking the Zocolo. In Mexico City for a conference, we had the good fortune to eat in some unusual venues. For the mid-day comida in the courtyard of Antiguo Colegio de San ildefonso, surrounded by Diego Rivera murals, our first course was a dried chickpea soup that would win approval in any southern Italian household. My favorite, at a formal dinner in the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes: a creamy puree with a squash flower floating in the middle.

Mexico’s growing seasons are similar to Florida’s, so squash blossoms were easy to come by in my local farmers market. I also added summer squash, fresh corn and part of a spicy red roasted poblano to my soup mix. Chicken broth for depth of flavor and heavy cream for a smooth finish. My very yummy squash flower soup didn’t look or taste exactly like that Mexico City sopa, but close enough to make me start dreaming about a repeat visit.

tortilla soup

dried chickpea soup

Squash Blossom Soup

Makes 6 servings

24 summer squash blossoms
2 small zucchini
2 ears corn
1 medium potato
2 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 cups salted chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
Roasted hot red pepper or ground red pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in ¼ cup water
Fried tortilla strips (for garnish), optional

1. Gently wash the squash flowers, break off stems and pluck out the stamens.  Peel 1 zucchini and cut in thick slices. Cut the other (unpeeled) in small dice. Shuck the corn and cut off and reserve kernels and scraped cobs. Peel the potato and cut in chunks.

2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the onion, covered, until translucent but not browned. Reserving 6 squash blossoms for garnish, stir in the rest. Add half the corn kernels, the cobs and the potato. Cover with chicken broth.  Bring to a simmer and cook, partly covered, until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes. Remove corn cobs. Stir in the cream. Cool until warm. Using a blender, puree the soup until smooth. Season with salt and roasted or ground red pepper to taste, blending briefly.

3. Return the soup to the saucepan. Stir in the diced zucchini, corn kernels and cornstarch slurry. Reheat gently until the vegetables are cooked and the soup thickens. Spoon into bowls, topping each with a squash blossom and, if using, fried tortilla strips.



Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Fruits and Vegetables, Italian ingredients, Soups and Stews, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

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.

Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Italian food, Italian ingredients, salads, Seafood, Sicily, Tampa Bay, travel, Uncategorized » 1 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.


Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

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.

Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Fruits and Vegetables, Grains, Italian ingredients, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

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.


Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Fruits and Vegetables, Grains, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Pizza, restaurants, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...