Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

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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June 7, 2015

Ricotta Fritters with Maple Syrup

Corner of Vermont is a store that sells maple syrup, maple sugar and maple candies. Also, the state’s maple-flavored creemees, which look like soft-serve ice cream but have more butterfat and therefore taste better.

Nothing too surprising, except what’s a store named Corner of Vermont doing in the heart of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood?

“I got tired of losing money as a Vermont farmer,” says Mark Hastings. He noticed that many customers at his seasonal roadside stand were from Brooklyn. So he followed them, setting up shop in Park Slope to sell products from the 250-acre Guilford Farm.

Another question: Why’s his single-estate maple syrup better than the 100% Vermont maple syrup found in any supermarket? Seems that, as with wine or olive oil, terroir can make a difference. Maple syrup is a living thing whose flavor and color vary according to the soil, climate and advancing season. So maple syrup from a single farm is likely to have distinctive properties lacked by supermarket syrup, which might be made with sap from 5,000 farmers. The bottle I chose was a dark amber that Hastings promised would deliver “straight-ahead maple flavor.”

Just then a stream of middle-schoolers charged into the store, demanding creemees and other after-school treats. I stopped asking questions and left.

And started thinking about what to do with my maple syrup. The usual, of course–pancakes, French toast, the occasional marinade. But this blog is about “cooking Italian anywhere” and therein lies the challenge. Italians don’t typically consume maple syrup. Or even like it, which may disappoint the proud Americans who give it to Italian friends as a gourmet gift.

Still, there had to be some good use for maple syrup in the Italian cooking canon. And then it came to me: the sweet ricotta fritters known as bombolette or, in Tuscany, as cenci. If honey is drizzled over them (and it is), why not maple syrup? I whipped up some fritters, and–oh yes!  Maple syrup, right at home in Italy.

Ricotta Fritters with Maple Syrup

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking

Makes 4 servings

2 eggs
8 ounces best-quality ricotta
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup flour
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 pinch sea salt
Vegetable oil
1/2 cup maple syrup

1. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until light and foamy. Add the ricotta and butter. Continue whisking until creamy. Add the flour a little at a time until incorporated. Beat in the zest and salt. Let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour but no more than 3.

2. Fill a small skillet or wide saucepan with enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides. Heat over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Working in batches, add the batter 1 tablespoon at a time, pushing it off with another spoon. The batter will sink, then rise to the top and puff up a little. When golden brown, turn and cook on the other side. Drain on paper towels.

3. Place the fritters on a platter or individual plates and drizzle with maple syrup. Serve hot.


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

April 6, 2015

Calamondin Marmalade. Huh?

I didn’t know and on the chance you don’t either: Calamondins are tart little citrus fruits related to kumquats.  More often than not, they end up in marmalade.

Calamondins fall into the category of obscure Florida fruits you’ll encounter only if lucky enough to know someone with a tree. We do, as it happens. After lunch with friends in Cedar Key, our host stripped their branches bare and sent us home with a good six pounds to play with.

When I shared some at a meeting, most participants politely took a calamondin to sample. But one declined. “Thank you, but I have a whole orchard of sour oranges,” she said sourly, alluding to the citrus greening problem that is afflicting Florida growers.

By then I had already had a go at making marmalade, collating advice from our friends and a surprisingly large number of Web sites that knew about calamondins. They all called for removing seeds and slicing the fruit, skin and all. After adding water and bringing to a boil, you add sugar. And then let the mixture sit for up to a day. I don’t know much about putting up preserves, so this step puzzled me until I read somewhere that the waiting period allows more natural pectin to be extracted from the fruit. Then you boil the fruit until thick. Simple.

All went well until I left the kitchen and forgot about the saucepan boiling on the stove. “What’s that funky smell?” demanded my husband as he arrived home. It was my calamondin marmalade, thoroughly blackened and welded to the bottom and sides of the pan.

A couple of days later I tried again with the remaining calamondins–setting the kitchen timer at intervals to jolt my aging brain into checking the marmalade. This time, success.  Hours later, I had a Little House on the Prairie moment as I spooned the glossy umber-colored mixture into jars. We’d harvested fruit and put it up for the winter!

Well, not exactly. At the last minute, I stirred bits of candied ginger into the marmalade–I’m betting Ma didn’t have that in her pantry on the big prairie. Also, rather than going through the canning rigmarole, I just shoved the jars into the refrigerator. The marmalade will be long gone by next winter when–given that we live in Florida–the calamondin trees will be laden again.

Calamondin (or Kumquat) Marmalade

Makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 pounds calamondins or kumquats
2 cups sugar, or more
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger (optional)

1. Cut the calamondins in half and flick out seeds with the tip of a knife. Cut fruit (peel and all) in thin slices and place in a medium saucepan. Stir in 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Add 2 cups sugar, stirring until dissolved. Taste and add more if you like–the amount depends on how sour the fruit is and your preferences.

2. Let the fruit mixture stand for several hours or up to 1 day at room temperature.

3. Bring the calamondin mixture to a boil again. Reduce the heat and simmer briskly until it thickens a little (this will take an hour or more). From this point on, keep a close eye on the marmalade, stirring often as it thickens and darkens in color. Cook to 220°F if you have a candy thermometer, or just go by looks (my method). To see if it will set up, spoon a bit onto a plate and refrigerate for a few minutes.

4. Stir in the candied ginger, if using. Cool until warm and spoon into clean jars. Refrigerate.


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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.



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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.

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