Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

October 18, 2017

Eating “Greek Salad” in Greece

As I labored up rocky paths during our REI hiking trip to Greece’s Cycladic Islands, the glorious views kept me moving. And also the thought of my next meal.

After dropping our hiking poles and packs, we sat twice a day around a communal table at a taverna–almost always outdoors–and the dishes, served family style, started coming. Fish, lamb, artichoke pies, eggplant casseroles and delectable pastries, to give you an idea.

Our guides, Nefelina and Cristos, had arranged for the menus to change at every meal, providing a wonderful introduction to regional Greek cooking.

Salad was the exception. It showed up at every meal, but seemed more or less the same. Juicy tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, onion: similar to what we call Greek salad at the U.S. but with some critical differences.

1. None of the shredded lettuce that abounds in American-style Greek salads. In fact, no greens at all.

2. Vegetables were cut in big chunks, to be addressed with knife and fork. Feta, rather than being crumbled, was sliced and laid on top.

3. The salads were lightly dressed with good olive oil, a few pinches of salt and perhaps a little lemon juice or wine vinegar–a welcome change from the vinegary, overly sweet or creamy dressings served in many Greek-American restaurants.

This combination went with everything and I never tired of it. Gradually I began to appreciate small differences. One taverna’s salad was seasoned with dried oregano, while another’s had fresh dill or a sprinkling of piquant capers, reminding us of the caper bushes we passed along the trails.

On the island of Tinos, we found crisp rusks among the tomatoes and cucumbers, a combination that made me think of the Tuscan bread salad called panzanella.

A Naxos Town taverna put potatoes in its salad, an addition I loved.

And, on Santorini, my final salad was made with a cucumber variety prized for its firmness and sweetness. “Let it ripen a little and it will taste almost like melon,” promised the restaurant owner, pressing a large cucumber into my hands.

I couldn’t say no, and it’s just as well. Ten days later, after two flights and a train ride, I made panzanella in Italy with my Greek cucumber.

Greek Salad with Potato

Makes 4 servings

1 large potato, peeled
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 large tomato
1 medium cucumber
1 small green pepper, cored and seeded
Several red onion slices
Up to 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup kalamata or other Greek olives
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or several pinches dried oregano
2 to 4 ounces feta in a block

1. Cut potato in large chunks. Place in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until just tender. Drain, return to pan and sprinkle with vinegar. Cool.

2. Cut tomato, cucumber and green pepper in large chunks. Combine in a large bowl with potato and onion slices. Add olive oil. Toss gently. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Toss again.

3. Pile the salad on a platter. Sprinkle olives and dill over it. Cut feta in large slices and lay on top.


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May 24, 2017

Sampling Umbrian Wines and Olive Oil at the Source

A few years ago I spent a day visiting Sagrantino wine producers with Alessandra Mallotti of Discovering Umbria. That taste of a unique varietal in its glorious country setting brought me back to sample some of the region’s organic wines and olive oil.

It hadn’t occurred to me that last year’s earthquakes in Umbria (also Abruzzi and Lazio) would be an obstacle to this experience–and they weren’t. So we were surprised to hear from Alessandra that tourism has taken a blow as travellers avoid what they think might be devastated or dangerous places.

I can vouch for the fact that the zone we were in, roughly between Assisi and Todi, was untouched, and we hear that areas such as Norcia have largely recovered.

Simona Bonci, Alessandra Mallotti, Kent Lydecker

Some of the Ronci azienda’s olive trees are ancient, gnarled moraiolo trees with appropriately silver leaves that might be as old as 400 years. They’re tall, requiring ladders for harvesting and well spaced, pointing to an era when the goal was to produce oil just for the family and the padrone, with the spaces between filled with other crops and animals. Others are leccini and frantoio varieties, sitting closer to the ground.

The cluster of olives Simona Ronci pointed to was the size of her fingernail. But she was already thinking about the moment in mid-October when they would be plump and juicy, filling the air with their perfume during the pressing. “The days are still warm then but the nights are cool, and the olives respond by producing more antioxidants,” says Simona. “This is the ideal moment.”

The sooner the olives are pressed after the harvest, minimizing oxidation, the better the quality of the oil. In a race against time, the family’s modern presses work around the clock, pressing olives from other producers during the day and their own olives at night. Two or three hours of sleep might be the norm during this period.

Federico Bibi

The flavor of the oil hints at the tree(s) of its origin. A blend of moraiolo, leccino and frantoio carries a slight astringency that clears the palate, a hint of green tomato and artichoke, a peppery finish. More delicate, the frantoio on its own. The moraiolo monovarietal is full-bodied, with an artichoke note and piquant finish, and that was the one we shipped home.

Around the time the olives are harvested, the vineyards are a raging colorfest of dark red grapes. During our visit to the Terre Margaritelli cantina, in the Torgiano Sangiovese area near Assisi, the emerging leaves were a bright spring green.

The family started in the lumber business, producing wood products such as railroad ties and now parquet flooring. One generation started making wine on the side and, when the family decided to get serious, they found it a very different world from lumber.

Federico Bibi, hired from outside, is now the wine maker. The operation is organic (“bio”), like the Ronci olive operation, and rigorous inspections take place at least two or three times a year.

Other varietals are grown here but during the tasting we gravitated to 100% Grecchetto and Sangiovese wines.  Grecchetto tastes of apple to a friend and reminds me somehow of a limestone cliff. Regardless of your personal associations, it is a delicious white aged three months in white oak from a French forest owned by the azienda.

What’s special about an Umbrian sangiovese? “This is a southernmost terrain for sangiovese,” says Federico. “It’s a ‘generous’ grape that leaves a lot to the skills of the winemaker. Our goal is freshness, a balanced style and drinkability.”

Freccia degli Scacchi, the azienda’s 100% Sangiovese, is aged two years in white oak from a French forest owned by the family, and and then another year once bottled.

We bought Terre Margaritelli wines to enjoy later, but on our last night in Todi, we chose a Sagrantino to savor with Umbrian salumi and cheeses at La Vineria di San Fortunata. I’m already looking forward to tasting more of what this region has to offer, whether at the source and back home in the States.






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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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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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