‘Piatto Unico' author offers immersion course in one-pot Italian meals

ST. PETERSBURG

The last time I talked with author Toni Lydecker about a cookbook she had written was over the phone. She was in her New York office doing interviews for Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks and I was cradling the phone in the newsroom here. • That was more than 10 years ago. To discuss her latest cookbook, Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal (Lake Isle Press), we got together in her condominium with the wide verandah that looks out on the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and a bit of the glinting blue water of Tampa Bay.

What a difference a decade makes. When Lydecker's husband, Kent, became the director of the Museum of Fine Arts last year, the couple moved south. Kent Lydecker, the retired associate director of education at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is now lucky enough to be able to go home for lunch — on foot. The Beach Drive condo is across the street from the museum.

And when there's something as delicious as Taglierini With Shrimp, Leeks and Prosciutto being tossed together, the temptation is great. Did I mention Spinach Salad With Pear, Pecorino and Whole-Grain Croutons? She made that, too, on the day I visited, both recipes from Piatto Unico, a book that mines a different style of Italian cooking than most we are used to. While we are familiar with primi piatti and secundi piatti — loosely translated, first and second courses — the idea of a one-course Italian meal is novel. She does hope that the Italian title doesn't stop buyers. It speaks to the unique contents better than something like One-Pot Italian Meals or Italian Comfort Food, suggested names that were quickly abandoned because they were too generic, she says. At any rate, the delicious cover photo of Brothy Bread Soup With Poached Eggs should draw attention.

Lydecker will be one of the featured authors at the 19th Annual Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will talk about her career as a cookbook author and the extended periods she and her husband, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance art, spent in Italy's Tuscany region. Besides her cookbooks, her work as a food journalist has been published in Cooking Light, Wine Enthusiast, the Washington Post and Fine Cooking.

Toni Lydecker is a foodie; there's really no other way to describe her passion for cooking and food. Interesting olive oils are stowed on her counters along with a food scale that she uses to measure dry ingredients, always more accurate than measuring cups. A large, colorful painting by a daughter on the wall of the eating nook proclaims "Toni's Chop Shop." In Ghana, where her daughter spent a semester of college studying arts and culture, restaurants are called chop shops.

In Lydecker's short time in Tampa Bay, she has found the specialty store gems, such as La Casa Del Pane on St. Pete Beach, a favorite stop for bread, and joined a group of women who meet monthly to keep their Italian language skills sharp.

She's still getting used to the flip-flopped growing season here. Strawberries and tomatoes are winter/spring crops, and there's not much sprouting in the wet and humid summer. Seems odd, she says, not to have big, juicy local tomatoes in September and August.

The idea of the one-pot Italian dish should appeal to the way Americans cook and eat today. It uses fewer dishes and yields quick results. Plus, our love affair with Italian cuisine never wanes, be it home-cooked meals or restaurant fare. Some dishes — such as spaghetti and meatballs — are so ubiquitous that they almost seem American. Sort of like tacos.

Italians, Lydecker says, deal with some of the same modern challenges as Americans do. They want to prepare food quickly for their families, and they are eating lighter.

"It's a bit fashionable in Italy right now to eat this way," she says.

"Eating this way" means making a pot of minestrone and accompanying it with a lusty hunk of bread or serving a hearty risotto as the meal's sole offering.

While the recipes in Piatto Unico are not difficult, the difference between success and failure is likely to be ingredients. Like Italian cooks, Lydecker advocates fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables and splurges on high-quality pastas, grating cheeses and canned tomatoes.

Each year, there are a generous handful of Italian cookbooks published. In fact, Chronicle Books has just released Colman Andrews' comprehensive The Country Cooking of Italy, sure to draw attention when cookbook awards are handed out next year. It's a coffee-table cookbook, for sure.

Lydecker's Piatto Unico is more of a kitchen counter book, because that's where it'll be propped much of the time.

There's plenty to inspire a home cook, with or without Italian roots.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>Moderate

Taglierini With Shrimp, Leeks and Prosciutto

2 to 4 thin slices (about 1 ounce) prosciutto di Parma or other high-quality prosciutto (see note)

1 medium leek, washed well, especially between the leaves where sandy dirt accumulates

3 sun-dried tomatoes, semisoft and packed in oil

3/4 pound small shrimp (such as Key West pinks), peeled

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup white wine

1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea or kosher salt

Hot red pepper flakes

1 pound thin fresh pasta such as taglierini or another thin noodle such as angel hair (see note)

Cut the prosciutto into small pieces with kitchen shears or a knife. Thinly slice the leek crosswise, including the white and an inch of the tender green part. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes in thin strips (kitchen shears work best). Unless the shrimp are really small (about 40 per pound), cut each one in half.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a small skillet. Cook the prosciutto, stirring and separating the pieces with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula, until crisp, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat but leave in the pan.

Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water and set over high heat to boil for the pasta.

Meanwhile, heat about 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients. Saute the leek until tender but not browned. Stir in the shrimp, cooking just until it loses its raw look. Add the white wine, letting it sizzle for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the crisped prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and parsley. Season sparingly with salt (because prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes contain sodium) and red pepper flakes to taste.

Add a small handful of salt to the boiling water. Separate the strands of fresh pasta before adding to water so they don't stick together when cooked; stir well. Boil just until tender, 1 to 3 minutes depending on freshness. Drain, reserving 2 cups of cooking water, and transfer the noodles to the skillet with the shrimp-leek mix. Stir gently but thoroughly to coat the pasta with the sauce; add as much of the cooking water as needed to make a saucy consistency.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Some delis sell prosciutto ends, usually at a lower cost than center-cut slices. Cut in small cubes, an end will work well in this recipe; thick-cut pancetta is another option.

Note: This recipe specifies fresh, not dried, pasta, which you can find in refrigerated cases at most supermarkets and at specialty food stores.

Source: Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal by Toni Lydecker (Lake Isle Press, 2011)

>>MOderate

Spinach Salad With Pear,

Pecorino and Whole-Grain Croutons

For whole-grain croutons:

2 or 3 slices whole-grain bread

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For salad dressing:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar, sweetened with a touch of sugar or honey

Sea or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For salad:

8 cups tender spinach leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces, or baby spinach

1 large firm-ripe pear such as Comice, Anjou or Bartlett

Pecorino or another flavorful aged cheese, in a wedge

1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted

To make the croutons, preheat an oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees. Trim the crust from the bread or, for a more rustic look, leave them on; cut the bread into cubes.

Place the cubes on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and turn the cubes with your hands to coat them. Spread out on a single layer.

Bake until crunchy but not completely dried out, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

To make salad dressing, in small bowl or jar, combine olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste; mix well. Set aside while you make the salad.

Place the spinach leaves in a large bowl. Shortly before serving, cut the pear into quarters; peel the skin only if tough and trim the core. Cut into thin slices and add to the spinach. Toss with the dressing, and, using tongs, arrange the spinach and pears on four dinner plates.

Using a vegetable peeler, cut shards from the cheese, letting them drop onto each salad. Sprinkle the croutons and pine nuts over the salad.

Source: Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal by Toni Lydecker (Lake Isle Press, 2011)

MEET THE AUTHOR

Toni Lydecker

She will speak at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in Room 124

of the Science & Tech Building at USF St. Petersburg and sign books afterward. Books will be sold at the event. Go to

festivalofreading.com for more information.

Lydecker will also sign books from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday in the glass conservatory at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Proceeds from book sales will benefit the museum. There is no entry fee for the book signing or the MFA Café.

‘Piatto Unico' author offers immersion course in one-pot Italian meals 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:30am]

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