Toronto food writer and cookbook author Emily Richards – who many might recognize as one of Food Network’s Canadian Living Cooks ladies – just published a new cookbook – Per la Famiglia (Whitecap) is a collection of southern Italian recipes that are favourites in her family’s home. It’s a gorgeous book, full of food I want to make – and gather as many people around the table as possible to eat.
For Emily, the Christmas season involves plenty of food, and a busy kitchen – we had a chat with her about what their family traditions are – and how she takes the pressure off of holiday entertaining.
“In our family on Christmas Eve we do a traditional Italian fish dinner so my mom cooks that and my sister and I help out,” Emily says. “Christmas Day is at my house and I like to change things up each year and make something different. Everyone helps out and it's a good time!”
Her advice when it comes to easing your workload:
“I always make stuff ahead to make it easier over the holidays for entertaining. Make ahead appetizers and desserts really fit the bill and are great to bring to house parties or get togethers. Whatever I can freeze ahead I do as well, it's a nice surprise when guests come over to pull something out and pull it out of the oven hot to serve.”
With three kids, the house is always busy – but they’re old enough to get involved in the kitchen, and help out with dinner prep.
“The kids love cookies so we have a cookie party each year and they love making them and decorating them too. But they are hands on in getting the dinners together too. Some favourites are putting together the cheese trays and making salads, but they don't shy away from potato peeling and taking out the compost-which can get overfilled quickly!”
Every family has dishes that must be present during the holidays – Emily’s traditional dishes are a little different than what you might see at our house!
“Must haves are stuffing if we are having turkey, but definitely the calamari, shrimp and crab pasta my mom makes on Christmas Eve,” she says. “Everyone's favourite is also the potato doughnuts that are fried up and enjoyed with sugar or honey, it's not the holidays without them.”
Emily shared the recipe for her homemade Ricotta Gnocchi, which she made by hand – using one of her dad’s homemade wood gnocchi rolling boards – when she stayed with us earlier this summer. It comes from her gorgeous new book, Per la Famiglia (Whitecap).
Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi
Gnocchi di Ricotta e spinaci
These delicate little dumplings are from Zia Lina, my dad’s middle sister. She also makes a plain ricotta version without the spinach that is equally delicious (see tip below). She makes these for special occasions (usually when we visit!), but they work for any family meal. If you’re not a fan of spinach just omit it.
In addition to the gnocchi basket from my Nonna, I also have a gnocchi paddle that makes the ridges on gnocchi perfectly. After showing my dad the little board, he made me my own paddle, just the right size for me! He later made a box full which I take with me to cooking classes to sell. It was such a pleasure to showcase my dad’s craft as a woodworker and carpenter. Most of my students were happy to buy one and take it home to recreate gnocchi for their families. It makes me smile knowing people have some of my family’s work in their homes. Excerpted from Per la Famiglia, by Emily Richards (Whitecap).
1 large tub (11 oz / 330 g) baby spinach, washed*
1 tub (475 g) ricotta cheese
3 cups (750 mL) all-purpose flour (approx.), divided
½ tsp (2 mL) salt
1 batch of Homemade Tomato (see below) or Easy Gorgonzola sauce (see below)
*You will need about 16 cups (4 L) of lightly packed baby spinach.
** You will need 1 1/2 cups (375 mL) of ricotta cheese.
IN A LARGE SKILLET, cover and cook spinach over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Drain and squeeze spinach well. Chop spinach; set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together egg, ricotta and spinach. Gradually stir in 2½ cups (625 mL) flour and salt with wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Place dough on a floured surface and knead in remaining flour for 5 minutes to form a smooth dough.
Divide dough into 8 pieces; roll each into long, thin strands, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Cut into about 36 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Roll each piece across tines of a fork, gnocchi paddle or gnocchi basket. Place in a single layer on a floured baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough. Place in the freezer for about 1 hour or until firm. Use a flat spatula or wooden spoon to gently scrape the frozen gnocchi off the baking sheet.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook gnocchi from frozen for about 8 minutes or until they float to the top and are tender throughout. Drain with a slotted spoon and toss with Homemade Tomato Sauce or Easy Gorgonzola Sauce (below).
Make ahead: If you want to freeze the gnocchi, once they are firmly frozen, use a spatula to scrape pasta off baking sheet into a resealable plastic bag and freeze for up to 3 months. To make plain ricotta gnocchi, like my Zia Lina sometimes does, omit spinach and use only 2 cups (500 mL) of flour to stir in to form soft dough. You may need to knead in more flour to form a smooth dough.
MAKES 2 LB (1 KG), ENOUGH FOR 4 TO 6 SERVINGS.
Homemade Tomato Sauce
Sugo Fatto in Casa
This is as close to my mom and Nonna’s sauce that I could get. Using home-made canned tomatoes makes a difference but many people don’t get a chance to can their own tomatoes. I wanted to be able to offer you a recipe for a tomato sauce using store-bought canned tomatoes that was easy to make and still tasted great. This sauce is perfect for pasta or any other dish that uses tomato sauce, like pizza.
It’s simple and tasty and also freezes beautifully.
2 cans (28 oz / 796 mL) plum tomatoes*
6 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
2 sprigs fresh basil
1 small onion, halved
2 cloves garlic, halved
3 Tbsp (45 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp (15 mL) dried oregano leaves
2 tsp (10 mL) salt
¼ tsp (1 mL) hot pepper flakes
*You can use 6 cups (1.5 L) of homemade tomatoes if you can your own. You can also use 2 jars (700mL) of tomato pasta if you don’t want to puree them yourself.
In a food mill or blender, puree tomatoes until smooth and pour into large saucepan. Add parsley, basil, onion, garlic, oil, oregano, salt and hot pepper flakes. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low; cook for about 2 hours or until reduced slightly and thickened.
MAKES 5 CUPS (1.25 L) SAUCE.
You can serve up the very soft onion, garlic and herbs on crusty bread. I have family members that enjoy them this way.
Easy Gorgonzola Cheese Sauce
Salsa Facile alla Gorgonzola
This sauce is very special yet super simple. It is tasty with pastas like tagliatelle, fettuccine or even gnocchi. This rich and decadent sauce is always a favourite.
2 Tbsp (30 mL) butter
1 small shallot, diced
1 ½ cups (375 mL) 35% whipping cream
4 oz (125 g) Gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled*
Pinch of fresh ground pepper
2 Tbsp (30 mL) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
*This is about 3/4 cup (190 mL) of Gorgonzola cheese.
IN A LARGE SKILLET, heat butter over medium heat. Cook shallot for 3 minutes or until softened. Add cream and bring to boil for about 3 minutes or until reduced slightly. Reduce heat; add Gorgonzola and pepper. Stir until melted and thickened. Toss with your favourite cooked pasta.
MAKES 1 ½ CUPS (375 ML) OR ENOUGH FOR 1 LB (450 G) OF PASTA.