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Credit: Sofie Delauw

A Week of Family-Friendly Dinners from Italian Cookbook Maven Emiko Davies

updated Oct 23, 2020
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Emiko Davies has the kind of life people write novels about (except in her case, it’s cookbooks). After an international childhood spent between Australia, Japan, and China, Emiko made her way to art school in Florence, met an Italian sommelier, fell in love, and started a family.

These days, the three-time cookbook author lives with her husband, Marco, and their two daughters, Mariù and Luna (8 and 2, respectively), in San Miniato, Tuscany. We caught up with Emiko to learn about her go-to weeknight recipes, what’s always on her shopping list, and the only good thing to come out of this pandemic (more personal space in the grocery store). If you’re wondering, yes, they eat as much pasta as you’d imagine.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

Weeknight Cooking Questions for Emiko

Could you ever have imagined that this would be your life?
To be honest, I never imagined I would have lived in Europe. I grew up in China and spent my childhood traveling around Asia. My mother is Japanese, so we were often there. I spent eight years back and forth between Australia and Beijing, so Florence was kind of a fluke. I ended up falling in love with my husband, Marco (a sommelier), and a short trip ended up becoming longer and longer. He’s the main reason I kept staying.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

What’s the situation like in Italy?
Italy was one of the first worst-hit places in the world. We had the world’s toughest lockdown for around three months, almost all of March, April, and May. After that experience, I feel like Italians were really very cautious over the summer even though things started opening up. In general, people have been really respectful of the rules and regulations. Italy is watching on in horror at what’s happening in the U.S. It was really frightening to be the first country to go through that.

During the beginning of lockdown, we had a little bit of a rush to the market. Everyone bought out all of the pasta on the shelves. We did all of our shopping at little local bodegas, delis, things in walking distance. We stopped going to the supermarket and just went to local shops. It was really nice just to be supporting local businesses.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

Tell me about your new normal?
It’s quite amazing how quickly you can adapt to being like “Oh grab your mask.” That’s been the biggest thing. The other big adjustment has been not being able to see friends in the same way as before — gatherings, parties, special occasions. All have to be smaller versions. The summer has been great with warm weather, but now that it’s autumn and raining a lot, restaurants have to pull their tables and chairs in. We’re going to see a big difference in life as it gets colder.

One thing I like now is that people are more respectful of personal space when grocery shopping at least. They have barriers and you have to stand in line and take a number. Before, you’d have all of these old ladies elbowing you and cutting in. [Laughs.] Now it’s a little bit improved.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

What are some of the things that are on your list of grocery essentials?
Usually a tin of peeled tomatoes, a tin of legumes like chickpeas or cannellini beans. I’m always buying flour; different stone-ground grains. During lockdown, my husband wasn’t working because the restaurant was closed, so he took on the sourdough project. We have sourdough loaves and pizza constantly.

Italian produce, even at the supermarket, is super seasonal. If you want something like broccoli, you can’t get it year-round. I like to pick whatever looks good. I love, love, love artichokes. They’re in season in the spring, so we had a load of those in lockdown. They’re coming back in a month’s time for the winter, so I’ll be eating a lot of those. And always pasta: penne, fusilli, rigatoni. My eldest daughter only eats spaghetti (which is my favorite shape, too). So there’s always spaghetti.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

I feel like that checks out!
In Italy, it’s totally normal to eat pasta every day. I try not to because I like to mix it up. But on nights when we’re rushed for time, and everyone’s tired and hungry, pasta is our fallback. If not pasta, I’ll make Japanese-style short-grain rice (which is hard to get in Italy; they either have risotto rice or basmati). But when I cook rice, I make a big pot, package it into portions, and freeze them. When I need something really quick, I take some of those portions out and do a quick fried rice with eggs and soy sauce. It’s literally three ingredients, but the girls devour it. My mom taught me that.

Has cooking at home become particularly draining recently?
It’s been a journey. My eldest, Mariù, who is 8, has become really picky, which is heartbreaking for me. I was never that way as a child. There was not any ingredient I would not try. So that’s been hard for me, especially as a cookbook writer — to have someone not wanting to eat the good food I spent time making,

Credit: Sofie Delauw

How do you navigate that?
I want to make sure I’m offering things she’ll keep trying because I know one day she’ll come back to those things. Ages 4 to 6 were peak pickiness; literally there were 10 things she would eat. I didn’t want it to be that way forever. Now, there are 40 to 50 things she’ll try. Luna, our 2-year-old, is not picky except she doesn’t like cheese or prosciutto. My husband is like, “She’s not my daughter.” Mariù is more suspicious. She’ll study it, and sniff it. I’m kind of surprised, though — they instantly loved clams. That’s something even a lot of adults are funny about.

What about when you just need a break?
Before all of this, we had a really nice ritual for the nights when my husband was off of work. Even if we were cooking dinner at home, we’d go out about an hour before to a local place to have aperitivo, a spritz or prosecco, and a few nibbles. Then we’d come home and cook a nice dinner. I was really sad we couldn’t do that in lockdown. In Italy, takeout/delivery has traditionally and historically not been a thing. Not even a doggie bag — no one takes leftovers. But our local bar started delivering aperitivo boxes, which we’ve been getting.

Credit: Sofie Delauw

What’s one way you’re making cooking feel special right now?
One thing I did this summer was cook from a new Ukranian cookbook, Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules. It’s really beautiful, probably my favorite cookbook of the year. The first or second recipe I tried from it was this charred eggplant — you basically put the whole eggplant on a flame and char it until the skin is blackened. You take that and a bit of garlic and olive oil and tomato and put it on bread. It was a beautiful dish.

But while I was cooking the eggplant, the smell of the burnt skin took me to my grandmother’s kitchen in Japan, cooking little eggplants. There I was, cooking a dish out of a Ukranian cookbook I don’t know anything about, and this one dish reminded me so much of my childhood in Japan. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was the smell. It was such an overwhelming, immediate transportation, and it really struck me.

A Week of Dinners from Emiko Davies

Credit: Sofie Delauw

Proscuitto and Pea Pasta

This is a super-quick pasta sauce that we call alla fiesolana — garlic and herb-infused cream, with prosciutto and peas. It’s always a winner, even though one kid picks out the prosciutto and the other kid picks out the peas! When I want to turn making dinner into a fun activity for the girls too, all I have to do is pull out the pasta machine and let them make the tagliatelle for this too. Otherwise in a pinch, you can use store-bought dried pasta. Our favorite with this sauce is penne.

Get Emiko’s recipe: Prosciutto and Pea Pasta

Credit: Emiko Davies

Polpette di Tonno

At least once a week I have to turn to a mostly pantry-friendly meal, and fried tuna polpette is one of my go-tos. These particular polpette are like croquettes, where creamy mashed potato gives them body. You can add whatever protein you like, as this is basically an excellent vehicle for cleaning out the fridge: leftover roast beef (the most classic version in Tuscany), ham, perhaps some odd ends of cheese. This tinned tuna version is good hot or even cold the next day for lunch. The girls like it with a squeeze of lemon and mayonnaise to dip them in, but I like mine with salsa verde.

Get Emiko’s recipe: Polpette di Tonno

Credit: Emiko Davies

Minestrone Soup

I love making soup so much I’ll even make it in sweltering Tuscan summers, but even more so in the cooler months. And I love that it’s the favorite meal of my 2-year-old, Luna, who slurps up the soup with so much gusto that I have learned to make minestrone extra-brothy for her (here’s another!). I usually do this version of minestrone using whatever seasonal vegetables are around, and occasionally do it with chicken (like this one). I always put some legume of some sort and a grain or a small pasta along with all the vegetables and freeze the extra portions for those evenings when I haven’t had time to prepare something nourishing.

Get Emiko’s recipe: Minestrone Soup

Credit: Emiko Davies

Spaghetti con le Vongole

It’s always a celebration in our house when there is spaghetti con le vongole on the table, as it reminds me of holidays by the beach and everyone loves it so much, albeit with personal quirks. My husband doesn’t like dealing with the shells, I insist on leaving some in, so we compromise by removing about half the shells before tossing them through the pasta. Mariù, my eldest, doesn’t like any clams at all, just the sauce, and the little one, Luna, likes mostly clams but sometimes will give up her spaghetti to just slurp the vongole sauce out of the bottom of everyone’s plates.

Get Emiko’s recipe: Spaghetti con le Vongole

Egg and Rice

The meal that instantly takes me home to my Japanese mother’s or my grandmother’s kitchens is tamagonogohan, which is simply some quickly scrambled soy sauce-spiked egg and cooked rice, fried together with a bit of sesame oil, if I have it (this one is “dressed up” with a few peas and furikake). It’s also the dish that both my girls are guaranteed to gobble up in an instant and is always on high request, which makes my heart swell because it’s my number-one comfort food that I make when I feel tired, or homesick. I keep cooked rice frozen in portions just for this, a trick I learned from my mum, and it means dinner can be literally on the table in a few minutes.

Thanks so much for sharing, Emiko! Follow Emiko on Instagram and check out her cookbook(s) here.