Food & dining

Q & A

Lessons from Italy on pasta

Sara Jenkins (left) and  Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Michael Harlan Turkell
Sara Jenkins (left) and Nancy Harmon Jenkins.

Restaurateur Sara Jenkins grew up primarily in Italy but didn’t develop her interest in cooking until she returned to her family’s home in Maine in the 1980s. “I remember being taken out to eat in Boston in the North End and the food didn’t make any sense to me,” says Jenkins, 50, owner of Porchetta and Porsena restaurants in New York. “It looked so different from what I knew as Italian food.”

She and her mother, author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, 78, have coauthored “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” drawing on their experiences on the family’s farm in Tuscany. The book is their first writing collaboration.

Q. Have you always cooked together?

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Sara: [Laughs] We still don’t really cook together. It’s like, you’re going to make the salad and I’m going to do this.

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Nancy: We cook side by side.

Q. How is pasta eaten in Italy?

Sara: Historically, pasta was a smaller portion and it was a mid-course. Then your entree came. The majority of Italians today, with the exception of Sunday lunches and celebratory meals, eat either an entree or pasta. But they still eat a much smaller portion than we do in America. I struggle with that at my restaurant.

Nancy: Almost everybody in Italy eats pasta at least once a day. My experience is that when pasta is served alone, or “pasta e basta” [pasta, enough] as they say, it tends to have a heavier kind of sauce with it, like seafood or meat. Then you might go on to a salad. Also, the most important thing on the plate is the pasta, not the sauce. The sauce is what changes the pasta from one day to the next, but it’s a garnish.

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Q. Is fresh pasta always preferable to dried?

Sara: In America, unless you live in a city like Boston or New York, it’s very hard to find quality fresh pasta. It’s much, much easier, wherever you are in this country, to pick up a box of artisanal pasta, starting with De Cecco and going through Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Martelli. That pasta has been made perfectly in Italy with durum wheat. It’s been dried perfectly.

Q. What makes it better than American versions?

Nancy: Italian law requires that pasta has to be made from hard-durum wheat, which is higher in protein. In this country, it’s usually made with some kind of enriched flour. Artisanal Italian pasta holds up better to cooking and is made using bronze dies, which leave a rough texture. The sauce clings to the pasta better. I love this Italian phrase: “It marries to the sauce better.”

Q. Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

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Sara: Probably the fideua, which is a Catalan dish. It’s like a paella made with seafood, but instead of rice, they use broken toasted spaghetti. Classically, you cook it over a fire at the beach.

Nancy: Sara’s anelloni with spicy lamb and greens. She turns the ground lamb into something that’s quite like merguez sausage. It has a touch of North Africa to it. The thing you have to remember about pasta is that the Italians do it best, but it’s done all over the Mediterranean.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins will host a cooking demonstration at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival on Oct. 3 at 2:50 p.m. on Copley Square, part of HUBweek, Oct. 3-10, www.hubweek.org.HUBweek is founded by The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.