Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a recognized expert on Mediterranean cuisines and the Mediterranean Diet, out of which has evolved her deep interest in regional food systems. She is a food writer and journalist, with numerous books and articles to her credit, including “Virgin Territory: An Exploration of the World of Olive Oil” (Houghton). Her other food books include “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook” (Bantam), “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy,” “Flavors of Puglia,” “Flavors of Tuscany” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” examining a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal and other national and international publications. She is currently working on “The Four Seasons of Pasta” (Viking), with her daughter Sara, chef-owner of Porsena Ristorante in New York City.

Jenkins has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. She now divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse, where she makes her own olive oil, and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. In Italy, Jenkins conducts weeklong seminars on the culture and cuisine of extra-virgin olive oil. (In 2014, these will take place in Puglia in the autumn; plans are afoot for programs in Sicily in the spring.)

Jenkins frequently conducts lectures and workshops about various aspects of the Mediterranean Diet, especially olive oil. You can read more of her writing on her site,

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Sicilian Olive Salad To Celebrate The Olive Harvest Image

With the considerable help of family and friends, we finished in record time the olive harvest on our Tuscan farmlet high up in the hills behind Cortona, Italy.

It was not the best harvest we’ve ever had, though the yield, at 12.8 percent, was high. Translated into real terms, that means that for every 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of our plump, shiny, black Leccino olives that went into the press at the Landi mill on the road to Arezzo, we got back almost 13 kilos (28.6 pounds) of oil. And that meant we were blessed with a little more than 70 liters of fine, fresh, blissfully spicy and fragrant oil with a hint of lush fruitiness that will emerge more fully in the coming months.

Celebrating the harvest

Fresh olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Back home with our treasure, we broke open the champagne, Franciacorta and prosecco for a bubbly salute, and of course we toasted thick slices of bread in the fireplace, rubbing them with cut cloves of garlic and lavishing the new oil on top for the original bruschetta (called fettunta around Florence). We also made bean-and-farro soup, traditional for the harvest, and garnished it with a healthy glug of new oil and tossed pasta in new oil with chopped garlic and broken chilis in the family favorite ajo-ojo-peperoncino (garlic-oil-hot red peppers), and we had a wonderful olive salad (see recipe below) made by our friend chef Salvatore Denaro with green olives he had cured earlier in the season.

Denaro is Sicilian, though he has lived in Umbria for most of his adult life. He remains Sicilian through and through, and it was he who introduced me to the old Sicilian idea that you must harvest olives to cure before the Feast of San Francesco on Oct. 3. “Later on,” he explained, “they’re too full of oil.”

So, in keeping with tradition, his were quick-cured green olives, olive schiacciate, or smashed olives, cured in a salt brine with bunches of wild fennel, then tossed in this salad, which makes a terrific antipasto as well as a great accompaniment for any kind of roast or grilled meat, or even in one of those Sicilian fish platters where a whole fish has been roasted in a combination of tomatoes, olives, capers and other tasty things.

Olive Cunzate

Olives before harvest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Olives before harvest. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: None, although the olives benefit from resting about 30 minutes before serving

Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting time

Yield: Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups olive cunzate

Even in Sicily, cured olives are often dressed up (“cunzate”) to present as an antipasto salad. Try this with the plain green olives you buy from a supermarket bin, but taste them first (despite the sign that says “No snacking”) to make sure they have good flavor. And do not even contemplate using the kind of green olives in a jar that come stuffed with pimientos or the like.

This treatment will bring ordinary supermarket olives to life in a whole new way. You can do it ahead of time, too, and let the olives marinate in the mixture for a day or two, even up to a week, before serving. Keep the salad on hand for healthy holiday snacking along with bowls of almonds you’ve blanched and toasted in olive oil in a 350 F oven.


About 8 ounces brine-packed green olives, with their pits

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian

1 small fresh green or red chili pepper, thinly sliced

1 medium stalk celery, coarsely chopped

2 or 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon wine vinegar (optional)

Sea salt to taste (optional)

1 tablespoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley

Pinch of dried Sicilian or Greek oregano


1. Rinse the olives in a colander, tossing gently under running water. If you wish, remove the pits, but the olives themselves should remain as whole as possible. Some brine-cured olives have vinegar added to the brine to give a tart flavor. Taste an olive to see how salty and/or tart they are, then decide whether to add vinegar and/or salt to your marinade.

2. Transfer the olives to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss gently. Reserve the remaining tablespoon of oil to use at the end if necessary.

3. Add the chili pepper, celery, garlic and parsley and toss again. If the original brine for the olives was not perceptibly tart, add a teaspoon of good wine vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sea salt if necessary.

4. Let the olives sit, covered, at room temperature for 30 minutes or so, then taste. Adjust the mixture at this point, adding more or less of the ingredients mentioned. If the mixture seems too dry, add the remaining olive oil. At this point, you may cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two or three days.

5. When ready to serve, bring the olives in their marinade back up to room temperature. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the minced parsley and oregano, crumbling the oregano with your fingers to bring out the flavor. Taste an olive and adjust the seasoning once more, adding a little more vinegar and/or salt as needed.

Note: Denaro is a purist, but some Sicilians toss into the mix a few thin curls of lemon or orange zest or even a few pieces of fresh orange or lemon segments, the outer membrane carefully cut away.

Main image: Olive Cunzate. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Squash And Pasta, A Perfect Thanksgiving Match Image

Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.

The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.

The best pasta is made from durum wheat

Sagne a pezzi with squash. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sagne a pezzi with squash. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.

Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.

But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)

Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.

In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.

A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving

Chef Salvatore Denaro at work picking olives. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Chef Salvatore Denaro at work picking olives. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.

Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.

Here’s how to do it:

Bucatini all’Amatrigialla

Prep time: About 15 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings


1 large garlic clove, minced

1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced

2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)

3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side

One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal

Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving


1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.

2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.

4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.

Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Hot, Hot, Hot: Warm Temps Need Not Ruin Olive Oil Image

Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.

What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.

The cause of fustiness

Olive oil can have a fusty quality when olives are stored in burlap bags and there is a delay in the time between the olives are harvested and processed at the mill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Olive oil can have a fusty quality when olives are stored in burlap bags and there is a delay in the time between when the olives are harvested and when they are processed at the mill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.

How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.

A change for the better

Olives ready for the mill. Credit: Copyright 215 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Olives ready for the mill. Credit: Copyright 215 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.

I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.

Many regions producing quality oils

Fresh olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.

Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.

And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.

(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)

Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!

Olive oil recommendations

A selection of good oils form hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A selection of good oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.

» Mastri di San Basilio

» Olio di Melli Re Manfredi

» Pianogrillo

» Titone

» Olio Verde

» Castillo de Canena

» Barbàra

» Crudo

Main image: Despite a reputation to the contrary, you can find good quality olive oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Grim Harvest Limits Olive Oils; A Few That Shine Image

Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.

zester new

Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.

I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.

Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.

La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.

Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.

That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.

Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.

The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.

But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)

Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.

Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,”  published in February by Houghton Mifflin.

Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight

1 medium carrot, chopped

2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole

1 or 2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)

4 garlic cloves, divided

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old

4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving

2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste


1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.

2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.

3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.

4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.

5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.

6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.

What should I buy?

Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.

Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:

Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.

Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.

Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.

Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.

Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.

Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.

Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.

Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.

Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.

California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.

Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.

Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.

Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from

Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors

The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.

Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.

Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.

Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.

Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.

Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Lentils In The New Year Keep Resolutions On Track Image

Sun, Sea & Olives: The end-of-the-year celebrations in Italy last from Christmas Eve all the way to Epiphany on Jan. 6, when La Befana — the good witch — brings toys to virtuous children and lumps of coal to naughty ones.

zester new

Years ago, when I lived in Rome, we used to spend that time in the country. But one year we stayed behind in Rome for the celebrations. Back then, a cherished urban custom was to open the windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve and heave onto the street all the year’s accumulated rubbish, anything to be discarded — old scorched pots and pans, broken jugs and lamps, even small pieces of furniture, and sometimes large ones, too — and guai a chi sta sotto, beware all ye who pass beneath!

On this night, we leaned out a friend’s third-floor window overlooking the via dei Cappellari in vecchia Roma to watch the activity as the bells of all the churches pealed a joyous cascade for the new year and an accompanying crash descended from the neighboring windows. Our friend quickly pulled us inside, though, when across the narrow alley he spied a neighbor with a pistol who took aim and shot out the street lamp, plunging the street into darkness. Such was Roman anarchy 30 or more years ago. We went back to the table to continue eating lentils.

Lentils a good-luck food in the new year

Lentils for the new year is an Italian custom that may well go back to Roman times. In fact, lentils are one of the earliest cultivated crops to garnish our ancestral tables. (Remember Esau, scorning his birthright for a mess of pottage? It was lentils in that bowl.)

Exactly when they became linked to good fortune in the year ahead is not clear, but in Italy the little gray-green disks tarnished with a bronze patina as if they were buried treasure from a pirate’s chest still signify small coins. The more you eat, the more treasure you stand to accumulate in the year ahead. So on San Silvestro, New Year’s Eve, along with tossing trash, we also consumed large quantities of lentils, often with zampone, a succulent, savory pork sausage encased in a pig’s trotter that bathes the lentils in its unctuous juices.

We eat lentils for luck in the new year to this day.

By the time you read this, New Year’s will have come and gone and the last ring of sausage juice will have been licked clean from my platter along with the last little lentil, but that’s no reason to give up on these tiny, nutritional treasures.

If you’re like me, and like 92.5 percent (I’m just guessing) of American adults, you have made several New Year’s resolutions, at least one of which is to lose weight, improve your diet or go to the gym twice a week. Skip the gym if you will, but why not begin a new diet with lentils? Low in fat and calories and high in protein, fiber and minerals, they will add punch to your resolutions.

Bring the flavor

I should warn you, however, that lentils plain and simple, on their own with no adornment, are considered by some to be one of human history’s most boring foods. They have an earthy flavor, however, that becomes absolutely enticing when it’s countered with something sharp and peppery (chili) or tart and puckery (lemons, preserved or fresh) or snappy and green (fresh herbs of any kind) or, indeed, all of the above.

Sparked with crisp winter vegetables (fennel, celery, scallions, celery root) and bitter greens, they can make an enticing main-course salad; steamed in a carroty, gingery, garlicky broth they are deeply restorative on a cold winter night. And there’s an added bonus: Of all the legumes, lentils are easiest to prepare because they require no soaking and not more than 20 to 30 minutes cooking. Another bonus: You can make a double portion and freeze part so as to have a soup or salad ingredient ready — the smallest lentils will thaw rapidly once out of the freezer.

But what lentils should you use? The varieties presented in well-stocked supermarkets may be perplexing, but they’re easy to sort out. Medium brown or blond lentils are fine, but for flavor I prefer the smallest ones, about a millimeter in diameter and darker in color, sometimes sold as lentilles de Puy or French lentils, though they’re not always from France. I also like Beluga lentils, shiny and black, and especially the tiny lenticchie from Umbria’s Colfiorito plateau at, with a nutty flavor that’s seductive and, as our British cousins say, more-ish.

Red, orange and yellow split lentils are used to make Indian dal, or lentil puree; they will naturally soften into a pleasing mush with cooking. They’re delicious in their own right and not to be discounted by cooks looking for healthy ingredients, but they’re not what we’re talking about here.

For salads and some other preparations, cook lentils in advance, first rinsing them briefly. About a cup of lentils to 2½ to 3 cups of water brought to a simmer, covered and cooked for 20 to 30 minutes should be fine, but the cooking time will depend on the age and size of the lentils, so check frequently after 20 minutes.

Here are several suggestions and a recipe to bring lentils into your new year:

  • Lentil and bulgur soup from Turkey: Cook 1 1/2 cups of lentils in 4 cups of water until tender, then combine with a cup of bulgur wheat that has been soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and squeezed dry. Sauté a couple of sliced onions in olive oil, add a pinch of ground cumin, a pinch of ground red Middle Eastern pepper (Aleppo pepper), salt and black pepper to taste and stir this mix into the soup. Add some ground turmeric if you wish, and garnish with minced fresh mint leaves. Thick and substantial, this soup will keep away coughs and sniffles.
  • Cook lentils with finely chopped carrot, celery, onions and garlic, adding some Tuscan aromatics such as bay leaves, minced parsley, fennel and minced rosemary. When done, combine with pasta or rice to make a complete main dish.
  • Lentil salad: Mix cooked lentils with chopped green olives and a chopped red pepper and toss with slivered bitter salad greens — arugula, chicory frisée and red radicchio would all be good. Or leave out the green olives and substitute some walnuts, coarsely chopped, and slivered scallions — lots of them so it’s essentially a lentil-walnut-scallion salad. Fresh wild mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley make a nice addition to a lentil salad, and if you have a North African-style salted lemon, sliver that to add to the mushroom mixture and stir in a small dollop of harissa.

The above suggestions are all vegetarian, but if you’re what I call an “almost vegetarian,” try my New Year’s lentil-and-sausage dish for a great Sunday supper. Cotechino or zampone are hard to find; instead I use a combination of Toulouse and Italian sweet sausages from my local market, Maine Street Meat in Rockport, Maine. If you can’t get to Rockport, use the best sausages you can find locally.

Gratin for the New Year of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Gratin for the New Year of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Gratin of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages for the New Year

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total: 60 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, depending on what else is on the menu


1 1/2 cups small lentils

2 whole peeled garlic cloves

1 medium red chili, not too hot

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 chopped garlic cloves

1 chopped medium onion

About 1/2 cup sliced scallions, white and green parts

1 1/2 pounds fresh sausages, sliced about 1/2-inch thick

1 cup dry red or white wine

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Combine the lentils, whole garlic cloves and chili in a saucepan with 4 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. When done, strain the lentils from the liquid in the pan, discarding the garlic and chili, and set aside, reserving the liquid.

2. In a sauté pan, combine the olive oil, chopped garlic and chopped onion and set over medium-low heat. Let the vegetables cook gently until they are very tender, then combine with the cooked lentils and raw scallions. Transfer to a gratin dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.

3. Set the oven to 400 F.

4. Add the sausage slices to the pan in which you cooked the onions and sauté until the sausages are brown on both sides. Distribute the sausages over the top of the lentils in the gratin dish.

5. If the sausages have given off a lot of fat, remove all but about a tablespoon and discard. Add wine to the sauté pan, raise the heat and simmer the wine, scraping up the brown bits in the pan. Let the wine reduce to about half, then pour over the lentils, adding a little salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, add up to a cup of the reserved lentil cooking liquid — the lentils should not be swimming in liquid but just sort of bathing in it.

6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the dish is very hot and starting to brown on top.

Note: The dish may be served immediately, but it’s just as good presented a little warmer than room temperature, so it’s perfect for a Sunday buffet. If you prefer, you can prepare all the parts of this ahead, then assemble them and put them into the oven just before you’re ready to serve.

Main photo: Lentils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Pasta Can Star On The Thanksgiving Table Image

I will confess right from the start that I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I’ve never seen the point of eating oneself silly one day of the year.

And I hate to call attention to it, but the food isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better — pumpkin pie (another pap), mincemeat (like Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it but we all pretend to) and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.

That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Rockwellesque illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each one hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which to serve celery sticks stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.

But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving — which has remained a secret until the present day — is that there are no presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving — and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Boston, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.

The pleasures of Thanksgiving

So to ask me to think about the pleasures of Thanksgiving, as the Zester Daily editors have done, is to ask pretty much the impossible. I could tell you about the best turkey I ever made, one deep fried in extra virgin olive oil from a 4-year-old stash I found hiding in the back of our Tuscan pantry. OK, so it was only a quarter of a very large Tuscan turkey, but it was memorable nonetheless. Or I could tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which we began the meal one year. Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, it required skinning and peeling the chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our house.

After all, isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about giving thanks for an abundant harvest? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what has been safely gathered in, even if you’ve gathered it from only your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we have no real happiness.

So presents or not, I plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in my own quiet way. But not with turkey and not with squashed squash. Instead, I’m going to make a very special pasta dish developed by my daughter, who often serves it at her restaurant, Porsena, in New York. We’re featuring it in our almost completed book, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which we hope will be out in time for Christmas 2015.

Here it is, and if you’re as tired as I am of squashed squash, pureed turnips, boiled onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce, just try this and see if it doesn’t bring some seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for daring to step outside the envelope.

Sausage and squash is a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Try hard winter squash for this recipe. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pasta With Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash

For this pasta, we use pennette, but any small, shaped pasta will do — try orecchiette, creste di galli (cock’s combs), Pasta Faella’s lumacchine (small snails), Benedetto Cavalieri’s ruote pazze (crazy wheels) or any similar quirky shape. This is a particularly good treatment for whole-wheat pasta, with the flavors of squash, sausage and wheat all marrying together nicely.

For the squash, use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins will be too sweet, but one of the pumpkins grown for eating (and not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would do very well. The squash should be about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop the squash coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.

For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. We use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when we can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you cannot get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings


10 to 12 sage leaves

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped onion, red or yellow

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about ½ pound)

2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)

Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)

About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta (see headnote for suggestions)

4 1/2 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash (see headnote for suggestions)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table

1/2 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley


1. Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to crisp in oil and use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped sage.

2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat then add the chopped onion and garlic. Remove the sausage meat from its casings. As soon as the vegetables start to sizzle, crumble the ground sausage in. Let the sausage meat cook briefly, tossing, stirring and breaking it up until it has rendered out its fat, then, when it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage along with the fennel and chili pepper (if using) and stir it in.

3. Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil.

4. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Saute, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain.

5. When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon. Pennette will take about 10 minutes to become al dente, but start testing at 8 minutes.

6. While the pasta water returns to a boil and the pasta cooks, add the grated squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, cooked through and some pieces are beginning to disintegrate. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce warm over low heat while the pasta cooks.

7. Have ready a warmed serving bowl.

8. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the warm bowl.

9. Season the sausage-squash sauce with salt and pepper, along with the grated Parmigiano, and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley and finally with the crisp-fried sage leaves.

10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.

Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens, or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly and add in place of the squash.

Main photo: Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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