Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

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.

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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.


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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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