Food and Drink
9:24 am
Tue January 18, 2011

Family's Move To Tuscany Shapes Daughter's Menu

For Sara Jenkins and her mother, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, food is a family affair ? and a family business. Nancy, a food writer, lived in an old Tuscan farmhouse in a steep mountain valley. It was there that she first introduced her daughter, Sara, to uncomplicated cooking and fresh, flavorful ingredients.

Food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins and her daughter Sara, together in Spain in 1966. Sara, like her mom, is now also a cookbook writer.

For Sara Jenkins and her mother, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, food is a family affair ? and a family business. Sara has just opened Porsena, an Italian restaurant in New York's East Village, and runs the popular Italian pork carryout Porchetta. Much of the inspiration for her menus comes from her childhood experiences in Rome and Tuscany, where she visited with her family. Her mother is the author of several cookbooks and an expert on the Mediterranean diet.

When Sara was a child, the family lived all over the world ? England, Spain, France, Lebanon ? and finally Italy. In Tuscany, they bought an ancient farmhouse in a steep mountain valley. The year was 1971, but Nancy says that in many ways, it felt like the 1800s. Their neighbors had no running water, and it would take nearly a decade before Nancy could outfit the farmhouse with a telephone.

But it was in that Italian valley where Sara shaped her first formative memories of food. Every summer, after the valley residents had threshed the wheat, they threw a harvest festival. "Everybody sat down under a grape arbor," Sara recalls, "and this incredible feast came out. Very simple, all food made by them: olive oil from their trees, bread from their grain, prosciutto from their pigs, cantaloupe melons that came out of their garden, pasta with the eggs from their chickens."

And, of course, there was wine from their vineyards, but that didn't make much of an impression at the time ? "I was 8," Sara says.

But the appreciation for uncomplicated cooking and flavorful, fresh ingredients stayed with her. Sara was an acclaimed chef in several of New York's Italian restaurants, and in 2008, she and co-author Mindy Fox published the cookbook Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond. That same year, she?and her cousin, Matt Lindemulder, opened Porchetta ? a sandwich shop focused on a traditional, Italian pork dish.

Sara says her mother warned her against going into the restaurant business ? "She said don't just become a cook," Sara recalls. But Nancy good-naturedly protests: "I never said anything of the kind. Never ever!"

These days, Sara and her mother don't cook together much; they're both far too controlling for that, they explain. But recently they made an exception. In Sara's New York, postage-stamp-sized kitchen, they joined culinary forces to make an Italian-inspired pasta ? long, fat, Bucatini noodles tossed with walnuts and caramelized red cabbage. (You can find the recipe for that dish below.)

"I'm very proud of Sara," says Nancy. "I don't get to say this very often, but I really think she's done a fantastic thing. She's a much better cook than I am."

But even now, mother knows best. Adds Nancy: "I probably know a lot more about food than she does."

Recipe: 'Long Pasta With Bacon, Red Cabbage, Walnuts And Rosemary'

by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox

Makes 6 servings

This is a pasta dish comprised almost completely of basic winter ingredients. It is creamy and rich, so small portions are best.

1 T unsalted butter

3/4 C chopped walnuts

2 T chopped fresh rosemary

2 T extra-virgin olive oil

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 small head red cabbage (1 1/2 pounds), cored and very thinly sliced
(Daniel Zwerdling note: a lot of people, including me, call it "purple cabbage" instead.)

1 t fine sea salt

1 C heavy cream (DZ note: Sara told NPR you can skip the cream and it will still be delicious)

1 C water

1 pound bucatini or spaghetti (DZ note: Sara made this dish for us with bucatini, which are like thick, hollow spaghetti. The noodles are nice and strong, so they hold up well with this dish)

2 C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (DZ note: Sara made this dish for us using 1 C of toasted seasoned bread crumbs ? see separate recipe below ? instead of the cheese.)

Coarsely ground black pepper

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add walnuts and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until nuts are toasted, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Line a plate with paper towels. Add oil and bacon to a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered from bacon, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain.

Increase heat under pan to medium-high. Add a large handful of cabbage and 1 t salt and cook, stirring, until cabbage is wilted and you have room in skillet to add more. Continue adding cabbage in batches and cooking until it is all wilted.? Then cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender and lightly browned around edges, about 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add cream and walnut mixture to cabbage, and cook for 1 minute. Add 1/2 C water and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more. Add remaining 1/2 C water and bring to a gentle simmer; then reduce heat to medium and cook until sauce is thick and flavors are well blended, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in reserved bacon and remove from heat.

Cook pasta until al dente. Drain, transfer to a large bowl, and immediately toss with cabbage sauce.? Add half of cheese and toss; add remaining cheese and toss once more (or toss with bread crumbs instead of any cheese). Season generously with pepper, and serve at once.

Toasted Seasoned Bread Crumbs

Makes 3 C

These keep well in the freezer. I like to make a batch often so that I always have them on hand.

NOTE: To make homemade bread crumbs, tear or cut a fresh or day-old loaf of bread in 2-inch pieces and spread them on a baking sheet. Bake at 325 degrees, tossing occasionally, until lightly toasted and dried, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool, then break into smaller pieces. Place in a resealable bag and crush with your hands for coarse crumbs, or buzz in a food processor for finer crumbs.

1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/3 C chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 medium dried red chilies, crumbled

3 C coarse fresh bread crumbs

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until just lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, add parsley and chilies, and stir together.

Add bread crumbs, return skillet to heat, increase heat to high, and cook, stirring constantly, until crumbs are crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 4 months.

Excerpted from Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. Copyright 2008 by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.