Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

June 8, 2016

Chilled Tomato Soup with a Smoky Undertone

I adore chilled soup when the weather is warm (as it is more often than not in Florida).  But the variations on gazpacho and vichyssoise that abound in restaurants, as well as my own kitchen, can get boring. So I got excited about a creative soup special at Brick & Mortar Kitchen & Wine Bar–cold tomato soup with a seductively smoky flavor.

“The tomatoes were in the smoker all day yesterday and they smelled fabulous,” our server told us.  I’ve seen chef Jason Ruhe at the Little Pond Farm stand at Saturday Morning Market, so when he came by to ask how I liked the soup, I wasn’t surprised to hear that was the source of the tomatoes.

June marks the end of Florida’s tomato season. (Crazy, right? Just as tomatoes come into season everywhere else.) So Chef Jason bought all the local tomatoes he could get his hands on to smoke, dry, can and otherwise preserve into the future.

As a condo dweller, I don’t have a smoker, so replicating his soup was out of the question. But, with dinner guests on the horizon and those flavors still in my mind, I thought of a work-around. In lieu of smoking the tomatoes, I sprinkled the thick slices with hickory salt before slow baking them for a couple of hours.

Next they went into the blender with cucumber and a sweet onion my aunt had sent from Texas, plus smoked paprika to reinforce the smoky flavor profile. I resisted the impulse to add sherry vinegar and garlic, touches that would take the soup in a familiar gazpacho direction.

The verdict?  My soup was paler in color and lacked the saturated smokiness that only a smoker can impart. But it tasted refreshing, with a distinctively smoky edge, and I loved the showy fresh corn,  zucchini and pea shoot garnishes. And yet another occasion to use my beloved vichyssoise dishes (early-marriage 1970s Williams Sonoma).

All the same, I’d order Brick & Mortar’s smoked tomato soup again in a heartbeat–or any of Chef Jason’s other inventive dishes.

Chilled Tomato Soup with Smoky Seasonings

Makes 6 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
7 medium tomatoes (about 3 pounds), trimmed and thickly sliced
Hickory salt
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 small sweet onion, peeled and cut in chunks
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

Garnishes: 1 1/2 cups blanched or sautéed fresh corn kernels and small-diced zucchini, pea shoots

1. Preheat the oven to 250°F. Smear a sheet pan with olive oil and arrange the tomato slices on top. Sprinkle both sides with hickory salt. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, turning once, until the tomatoes turn very soft and their color deepens.

2. Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, onion and paprika with 1/4 cup olive oil in a blender; puree until very smooth. Dilute with water if too thick. Taste and add more salt if needed. (For a silkier texture, pass the soup through a fine strainer or the fine disc of a food mill.)

3. Transfer the soup to a bowl and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. To serve: Pour into pretty glass bowls or martini glasses. Heap mixed corn and zucchini in the center and insert a small cluster of pea shoots.


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December 28, 2015

South Florida’s Black Sturgeon Caviar

Caviar. Not an everyday thing for most people, including me—but for New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day or a milestone birthday, caviar is pretty much guaranteed to set off a giddy feeling of celebration. Assuming you serve it with plenty of Champagne or prosecco.

My go-to caviar hors d’oeuvre consists of steamed fingerling potatoes, their insides scooped, mixed with crème fraiche and chives, piled back in the shells and garnished with caviar. Salmon roe look lovely but for a big flourish (and a big splurge), it’s gotta be glistening black sturgeon caviar. Which brings us to newly branded Black Opal Premium Reserve Caviar, processed just down the road in Sarasota and shippable anywhere in the U.S.

South Florida caviar? Seems counterintuitive that eggs from sturgeon, fish that love icy waters, would come from our semi-tropical region. But that’s what’s happening at Healthy Earth Sarasota, where acquaculture operations director Jim Michaels showed me around.

Michaels, a veteran of sturgeon farming in northern California, oversaw  development of the technology by Mote Marine Laboratory, a leader in sustainable uses of marine resources. Last September the not-for-profit decided the time was right for investment company Seven Holdings to take over the marketing, sales and distribution of its carefully nurtured product. The brand name Healthy Earth Sarasota distinguishes it from the company’s other sustainable seafood ventures along Florida’s west coast.

My tour started with a tank of tadpole-sized Siberian sturgeon, feeding on nutrients in the sacs they’re hatched with. The chilled water is what their species are accustomed to but as they grow and move to new tanks, they gradually adjust to higher water temperatures, thereby reducing power needs. Mote Marine also pioneered rigorous methods of water filtering and reuse, resulting in far less demand for fresh water than a typical fish farming operation.

Michaels told me the dark fish with strange snouts darting through water in the last tanks were up to seven years old. Sometimes that’s how long the eggs take to mature. Seven years. It might take that long to grow an olive tree, but the tree produces fruit year after year. A fully matured sturgeon represents a one-time investment. It’s not hard to see why caviar costs so much.

We moved on to a processing room where a worker was filleting sturgeon, its precious eggs already harvested, to be sold in fish markets. And then the sterile space where the eggs are gently rubbed against a screen to eliminate ovarian tissue before being mixed by hand with kosher salt, using the “lightly salted” Malossol method. Grading by egg size, color and firmness follows similar
criteria as for Caspian Sea beluga, osetra and sevruga—but the sturgeon species are different, so to avoid confusion, Black Opal is designated as “osetra-class caviar.”

Processors pack the caviar in jars ranging in size from the two ounces a consumer like me might buy to a one-kilo tin sold to restaurants such as Restaurant BT, where caviar is paired with big-eye tuna or used as a garnish for cucumber-pumpkin-coconut soup.  Caviar from different fish is never mixed in a container. It requires aging for a month under refrigeration and, as with Champagne, the containers must be rotated according to a set schedule.

Asked how he likes to eat caviar, Michaels said, “Naked.”  Making a fist, he showed how to place caviar in the crevice between thumb and index finger. I’ve seen  Italians do the same thing when tasting freshly pressed olive oil.

I was dying to know how Black Opal caviar tasted. A few days later I found out, as our guests ate their way through a platterful of creamy fingerlings topped with caviar. I’m not an expert but to me it tasted delicious—delicately briny and uniquely suited for celebrations.






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November 6, 2015

Making Ricotta at Home–Worth the Trouble?

Homemade ricotta had been on my “to do” list for awhile. Not a big deal: three ingredients and maybe 10 minutes of active attention. So I can’t explain why I didn’t get around to it. But one fine afternoon…ricotta making rose to the top of the list.

Ricotta means “recooked” and for a cheese maker, is a thrifty way of capturing remaining nutrients in whey, a byproduct of the process for more celebrated cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano. Whey isn’t exactly a supermarket staple, so homemade ricotta is usually made from milk and sometimes, for extra richness, with cream.  Instead of calling for rennet or a cheese culture, ricotta is formed by adding an acid, usually white vinegar or citric acid, to the heated liquid. Curds are separated from the whey, draining through cheesecloth to make the soft cheese.

How-tos are not to be found in the works of Pellegrino Artusi, the so-called “father of Italian cooking” or in a sampling the several hundred Italian cookbooks on my shelves. These sources assume that ricotta is a purchased ingredient unless you happen to own a cow or ewe.

Instead, I found advice by diving into Internet adventures of cheese making enthusiasts–some chefs or professional cheese makers but mostly hobbyists. Invariably they rave about the ease of making ricotta and urge the rest of us to get going. But even before heading for the kitchen, I picked up a pattern from the troubleshooting hints and reader comments. It seems that sometimes quantities of fluffy ricotta rise magically to the top of the hot milk, and sometimes they do not. The fact is that milk can behave in a temperamental way, presenting challenges even for a simple cheese such as ricotta.

For instance, it makes sense that you’d want to start with the best possible milk–perhaps your favorite organic brand. In my case that’s Organic Valley. But organic milk is typically ultra pasteurized and, uh oh, often doesn’t curdle properly. Ditto for heavy cream.

A second issue: The amount of acid needed to maximize curdling can vary. I discovered this on my first test, which happened to be with raw goat milk. The milk failed to curdle and, hesitant to add more vinegar for fear of creating an off taste, I discarded it.

Next I did several batches using pasteurized whole milk. These were my most successful, especially after I learned a trick for maximizing the quantity of ricotta formed. According to a cheesemaker’s site, keep adding vinegar until the liquid stops looking milky and becomes a watery whey with floating islands of curd. After straining the cheese, stir in a little baking soda to neutalize the acid and eliminate any off flavors. It sounded too chem lab to be true, but I have to say it works.

My last batch was made with the same brand of pasteurized milk, to which I added a little cream. That  mixture failed to curdle no matter how vinegar I added–which seemed to confirm the idea that ultra-pasteurized dairy products don’t take well to ricotta making.

After coming home, my husband was treated to a blind tasting of three ricotta samples. Two were ones I had made. They were received kindly but the winner was the third, which he described as “creamy and mild, with a nice milky finish.”

It came not from our kitchen but from Mazzaro’s, a local Italian specialty market.

So my personal answer to “Worth the trouble to make ricotta at home?” is no–although I do want to try goat milk one more time–because I have a good source of freshly made ricotta. If your only choice is a supermarket brand, bland tasting and laced with stabilizers, give homemade ricotta a try. I suggest you do it in small batches (say, two cups of milk) until you get the results you’re going for. Then ramp up to as much as 1 gallon of milk at a time.

There are a zillion things to do with good ricotta–I use it to make spinach-ricotta gnocchi, baked ricotta (a Sicilian dish), a layered zucchini casserole and, for dessert, a ricotta tart or fried ricotta fritters drizzled with honey. Whether you’ve made ricotta or bought it, be sure to eat some in a simple way. Spread it on crostini, finishing with sea salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Or place a generous dollop on pasta dressed with a fresh tomato sauce. The flavor is pure, comforting and always welcome in my kitchen.

Homemade Ricotta

Makes 1 cup (more if you’re lucky)

1 quart whole milk (pasteurized, NOT ultra pasteurized)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar, or more
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional)

1. Suspend a medium strainer over a bowl. Line it with a double layer of cheesecloth or paper towels.

2. Over medium-low heat, bring the milk and salt to a gentle simmer in a medium saucepan. Add vinegar and stir once or twice. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Let rest for 10 minutes.

3. Scoop off curds with a skimmer and place in the strainer. If the liquid in the pan looks milky, reheat it gently and drizzle in vinegar until more curds form and the liquid turns a translucent yellow-green color. Transfer curds to the strainer (or pour mixture into the strainer).

4. When curds have drained to a consistency you like, spoon into a bowl. Taste and, if you have added extra vinegar or detect a sour flavor, stir in the baking soda. Refrigerate and use within three days.


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September 29, 2015

Giardiniera: Vegetables, Lightly Pickled

Reading an article about the “farm to jar” pickles and jams made by Tampa Bay entrepreneur Illene Sofranko reminded me that I had squirreled away several jars of her delicious Urban Canning pickled okra and Brussels sprouts in my pantry. And also reminded me it’s time to make the Italian-style pickled vegetables known as giardiniera.

The tradition of putting up pickles goes back to pre-refrigeration days, when preserving seasonal produce was the goal. We don’t really need to do that now, any more than we need to kill and cure a pig every fall. I asked my 83-year-old aunt, our source of family history, whether our Oklahoma farmer forebears did this stuff?

Affirmative on killing a pig–my grandfather did that every year and my grandmother canned sausage made from it. Among the vegetables she canned, as Aunt Pattie remembers it, were cucumber pickles–the dill and bread-and-butter varieties.

My ancestors were from countries like Ireland and Germany. Italians know how to pickle cucumbers, too, but their vegetable mixtures are better known. My version of giardiniera (“from the garden”) consists of cauliflower, bell peppers, fennel and carrots. No fussing with cans steaming in a pressure cooker, like my grandma–I make just enough to fill a large jar for the fridge.

My vegetables are lightly pickled. When the vinegar brine is mixed with generous amounts of water, you can use less sugar for balance, resulting in a gently tangy taste I find more enjoyable than a mouth-puckering pickle.

What to serve pickled vegetables with? Something savory, in my opinion. In Emilia-Romagna bowls of giardiniera are sometimes served alongside platters of prosciutto and other locally cured salumi. Pickled vegetables, purchased or made at home, also make a refreshing side to a burger, pulled pork sandwich or grilled chicken.


(Adapted from Piatto Unico)

Makes 6 servings

1 small head cauliflower
1 large red, yellow or green bell pepper, trimmed and seeded
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 small fennel bulb
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 dried hot red pepper

1. Cut the cauliflower florets and stems in small pieces (about 4 cups). Cut pepper in square pieces about the same size. Angle cut the carrots in thin slices. Cut the fennel in thin wedges. Halve the garlic cloves.

2. Combine the vinegar with 4 cups water, the sugar, olive oil, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and hot pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; simmer for 10 minutes. Add the vegetables, making sure they are covered; when the liquid returns to a boil, adjust the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the vegetables until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat and cool in the saucepan. Transfer vegetables and liquid to a jar or other container; refrigerate. Strain before serving.


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August 3, 2015

Belgian Chefs Who Know Their Veggies

Yes, I enjoyed sampling Belgium’s famous beers, chocolate and, of course, frites. But what really blew me away on a recent visit were the things Belgian chefs are doing with vegetables.

marinated herring with peas

zucchini and kohlrabi with dogfish










My education began at JEF, a small but acclaimed restaurant in Ghent. Marinated fresh herring, just coming into season, were heaped with peas and lovage.  Lovage?  The last time I had encountered this robustly flavored herb was in my New York garden. It grew well but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Obviously, I could have done something like this.

Lovage was apparently in season because it showed up–unapologetically–in another JEF dish, over a tumble of zucchini almost obscuring the dogfish beneath. A crisp, translucent slice of kohlrabi adorned the plate. Another aha moment–such a delicious and elegant thing to do with a vegetable that, like most people, I totally ignore.

braised kohlrabi with snails

raspberry-dill sorbet with cucumber











At De Vitrine, another trendy Ghent restaurant, kohlrabi was braised until almost caramelized and so delicious it almost overshadowed the delicate-tasting snails also on the plate (that cloud on top is buttermilk foam). Vegetables appeared in every tasting menu course, including dessert:  raspberry-dill sorbet with cucumbers and gooseberry puree.

carrots with chicken


slow roasted tomato with eggplant puree









Chef Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson of Souvenir, in Ieper (also known as Ypres), is passionate about finding creative uses for vegetables that grow in Belgium’s fertile polders. Apparently, Belgium grows at least a dozen varieties of carrots. For one dish on that day’s menu, he halved carrots to show off a beautiful demarcation between maroon and orange, cooking them al dente. Requiring a knife, they commanded as much attention from the eater as the chicken they were paired with.  Tomatoes, on the other hand, were slow roasted until they could barely hold their shape, then garnished with dollops of eggplant puree and delectable whole-grain croutons.

Belgian mussels with celery and carrots

Some of my take-aways from this experience: Figure out what grows well and what’s in season where you are. Think of more ways to prepare vegetables. Don’t stop with steaming, roasting, sautéing. Make vegetables jus and purees, such as the white and green garlic sauces I saw served with roast pork. Get out the mandoline and cut thin, crisp sheets and sprightly tendrils. Braise to bring out deep, primal flavors. Lavish vegetables with herbs, seasonings, crisp crumbs, tart dollops of good yogurt or sour cream. Instead of being generous with the protein component of the plate and stingy with vegetables, switch the ratio.

How successful I am with incorporating these techniques into my cooking remains to be seen. But one thing I plan to try right away. We ate mussels several times and one place stood out. Same plump delicious mussels as everywhere else but they had taken the trouble to cut the celery and carrots steamed with them into paper-thin slices. Sublime and so crazy simple I can do it tonight.

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