Emiko Davies is a Japanese-Australian food writer and photographer who has spent much of her life on the move. She lives with her husband and two children in Florence, Italy, where she has embarked on an exciting exploration of traditional Italian cuisine. For more about Emiko (and more delightful recipes!), have a look through her beautiful food and lifestyle website, www.emikodavies.com.
Emiko’s third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, was published this month by Hardie Grant Publishing, and delves into the history of Italian dishes that have made their way into her own family’s traditions. Today, we are lucky enough to share an extract of that book with you. With thanks to Emiko and Hardie Grant Publishing, enjoy a taste of Tortellini at Midnight below, and catch the recipe for the traditional south Italian dish, ziti al forno, at the bottom!
‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.’
MICHAEL POLLAN, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, 2008
‘Almost everyone in Italy has memories of being with a grandmother in the kitchen.’
CAROL FIELD, IN NONNA’S KITCHEN, 1997
Heirloom recipes tell a story about family through food – the sort of food that, ironically, doesn’t come out of a cookbook. Many recipes are learned through tasting and watching, usually from the kitchen table, and through repetition (and a lot of it, because an unchanging dinner repertoire is comforting and easy). They are absorbed through sound, texture and smell – that pathway to memory – so that, even as adults, some family members can still recite a recipe that they ate often as a child, even if they had never cooked it.
Reviving the recipes of past generations is good for the soul, but it’s also simply good; it reflects a time before processed food – even before refrigeration – when food was always fresh and nothing went to waste. It’s a way of cooking and eating that relies on the seasons and what is locally available, and, in the spirit of cucina povera, makes the most of relatively little. It means cooking and eating together around the table and taking the time to be with the family.
[In Tortellini at Midnight], I have gathered some of the favourite recipes from our Italian family, tracing back recipes to generations that span the entire length of Italy, from the Mediterranean port city of Taranto in the southern heel of Puglia, to elegant Turin, the city of aperitivo and Italian café culture in the far north on the border of France and, finally, back to Tuscany, where we call home.
Mine and my husband Marco’s families could not be more different. I grew up in a multiracial family – a Japanese mother and an Australian father – in suburban Australia, before my diplomat father took us back and forth to China for eight years. My mother, the daughter of a vegetarian Buddhist priest, made us wonderful home-cooked meals. During my upbringing in Australia, she cooked for us every day until we moved to Beijing, where there was a gentle and friendly cook, Mr Zhang, who prepared weekday meals for us. I grew up always loving food; I was an adventurous eater, a keen baker and was always curious about the kitchen.
Marco, on the other hand, grew up in a small town in Tuscany, halfway between Florence and Pisa. He lived with his parents and grandparents under the very same roof that was built by his great-grandfather. Meals for the entire family were usually prepared by Marco’s grandmother Lina (decidedly the best cook in the family) and sometimes by his grandfather Mario (a dapper Taranto-born, Turin-raised lover of cheese), who dabbled in desserts, quick dinners and treats, such as fried mozzarella sandwiches. Until we moved in together, Marco had never even so much as picked up a wooden spoon to stir a pot, such was Nonna Lina’s long and beloved reign over the kitchen.
Our kitchen today, in a hilltop neighbourhood overlooking Florence, is small, but it is the heart of our home. It’s where we play, relax, cook and eat together. It’s where we prepare the food that reminds us of our grandparents and of trips we have made to Puglia and Piedmont, and where, together, we eat the dishes that will become new memories for our daughters.
This is a collection of comforting, family-friendly recipes and menus that we consider heirlooms to inspire your own.
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Ziti al Forno
My mother-in-law Angela’s family’s version of this southern Italian classic was always a rather simple but satisfying one: tomato sauce flavoured with garlic and basil, layered with cheese (scamorza was always their favourite, but you can also use mozzarella) and, of course, ziti: long, thick tubes of pasta that my daughter likes to pretend are drumsticks – they’re very effective when beating on pots. But the way you’ll often find it alla Pugliese is with the hearty additions of lots of little polpettine (hazelnutsized meatballs), or sometimes even slices of hard-boiled egg, sausage, prosciutto or mortadella. I like to stick to the family’s simple version with tomato, basil and scamorza for a weeknight meal, but Marco prefers it with the addition of pork and fennel sausages, crumbled then rolled into small pieces, like quick meatballs.
80 ml (2ó fl oz/ cup) extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
400 g (14 oz) tomato passata (puréed tomatoes)
handful of fresh basil leaves
300 g (10ó oz) ziti
250 g (9 oz) (about 2) pork and fennel sausages, skins removed (optional)
250 g (9 oz) scamorza or mozzarella, sliced thinly
50 g (1. oz) pecorino, grated
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil
In the meantime, begin preparing a tomato sauce by heating 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepan over a low, gentle heat. Add the garlic clove and infuse the oil for a couple of minutes, then add the passata and about 250 ml (8ó fl oz/1 cup) water. Season with some salt and pepper and bring the sauce to a steady simmer over a medium heat. Cook for 15–20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Just before taking off the heat, add about 5–6 basil leaves. Set aside until needed.
Once the pot of water is boiling, add the ziti (they are rather long, so break them in half if necessary to fit them in the pot). Cook until al dente, referring to the packet instructions (minus 1 or 2 minutes of cooking time). Drain and toss the ziti with the sauce until well coated.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
To a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 in) baking dish, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and about 2 tablespoons of the tomato sauce. Now add half of the ziti and (if using) scatter over half of the sausage – broken up into small pieces and, if you like, rolled into small meatballs – half of the scamorza and half of the pecorino. Repeat with ziti, sausage and cheese, finishing with the remaining olive oil.
Bake for 15–20 minutes, or until you can see the sauce bubbling around the edges and the top has formed a nice golden crust.
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This is an edited extract from Tortellini at Midnight by Emiko Davies published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $52.00 and is available in stores nationally.
Food Photographer: © Lauren Bamford
Lifestyle Photographer: © Emiko Davies
© Hardie Grant Publishing, 2019