Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

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.


  • 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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Baked Goods and Sweets, Eggs and Cheese, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Meat, Tuscany, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

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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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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