Whoever you thought you saw on Bravo’s “Around the World in 80 Plates” is not the high-spirited, sweet-as-pie Jenna Johansen we Coloradans have known and loved for years, from her previous work at Dish in the mountain town of Edwards to her current blog, The Last Thing We Ate, co-authored with husband Mark DeNittis, a master salumi purveyor and owner of Il Mondo Vecchio in Denver. Here is her own, free-wheeling recollection of how she developed her passion for cooking.
The Meals That Made Them
An occasional series by Ruth Tobias and Louisa Kasdon about American chefs and the meals that changed their lives.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money; my parents worked really hard and made a lot of dinners in the Crock-Pot. So as a latchkey junior high kid, I started to do more cooking. That was something I could do to help, one of the nice contributions I could make to my family; some of the first great memories I have are when we’d all sit down to a dinner I cooked and they would tell me how wonderful it was.
Jenna’s ‘sexy yet so approachable’ culinary inspiration
“I was a child of the ’70s, so this was before the Internet; you couldn’t go online and Google recipes. I’d watch Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and take notes on how to make enchiladas suizas, tacos — I wanted exposure to new things. One of the first dishes I ever made that really helped me understand the science of meat cookery was osso bucco. I had never made my own stock; I didn’t know what a mirepoix was: ‘OK, so if I add a little tomato, that actually makes it rich and glossy!’ Rather than throwing the ingredients in the Crock-Pot, I could see the way things actually worked, and I suddenly realized, ‘Wow, I’m actually good at this!’ And osso bucco was especially nice because it didn’t require an expensive cut I’d have to ask my parents to buy. That dish is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart: It’s so sexy yet so approachable, and hearkens to the day when people used the whole animal.
“Another great dish for me is pasta carbonara; we cooked it a lot in the restaurant that I worked at in Tuscany. The real thing is very different from what you’d get at Maggiano’s — I learned how to make it correctly, with pancetta from pigs we got across the street, which we cured ourselves out in a little shed, and without cream. It was a culinary ‘Aha!’ for me, since I’d only known the Americanized version that was basically like an Alfredo — not the creamy, sexy, glossy pasta it is.
“Mark knew that it was a dish that was close to my heart and he made it for me on our first date, with guanciale he’d cured himself at Mondo Vecchio. He was strutting his feathers, showing me all his wares [laughs]. It was the first time I’d had his salumi other than at a food show, which was where we met. Now we have carbonara about once a month and it’s like our first date all over again.”
4 pork shanks
Kosher salt and black pepper
Flour as needed for dusting
½ cup canola oil
1 yellow onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, peeled and minced
1 rib celery and minced
1½ cups red wine
1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs
1 teaspoon chili flakes, divided
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice
3 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
Zest from 1 lemon, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Heat canola oil in braising pan. Season shanks with salt and pepper, then dust them with flour, knocking off the excess, and sear them in the hot pan until brown on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
3. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until translucent. Add carrots and celery; sauté 3 minutes. Add wine and reduce by half. Add dried herbs, ½ teaspoon chili flakes and tomatoes and heat through.
4. Return meat to pan and cover with stock; then cover the pan and place in oven for 2 to 3 hours, or until meat is so tender it pulls easily from the bone — and you can’t possibly wait one more minute to eat it. While it’s cooking, mix the parsley, remaining chili flakes and lemon zest to make gremolata.
5. Remove the meat from the pan, return to medium-low heat and reduce the sauce to desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then gently stir in the butter. Place shanks on a serving platter; spoon sauce and sprinkle gremolata on top.
1 pound dried angel-hair pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale or pancetta
2 shallots, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
Splash white wine
½ teaspoon chili flakes
3 farm-fresh egg yolks
Fresh black pepper and kosher salt
½ cup Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1. In a pot, boil water as salty as the sea to cook the pasta while preparing the sauce; you want them both to be ready at the same time because the pasta must be added to the sauce while it is hot to “cook” the egg. Cook the pasta to al dente and reserve ½ cup of the water.
2. Heat olive oil in a pan. Dice the guanciale finely, and sauté in the hot pan for 2 minutes, until it starts to crisp and release some fat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté until translucent. Add the wine to deglaze, then the chili flakes.
3. Whisk egg yolks in a separate bowl; add hot pasta water and continue to whisk quickly so they heat, but don’t scramble. Add cheese and whisk again.
4. Add hot pasta to pan. Working quickly, stir to combine until heated through; pull pan from heat and continue to stir until sauce thickens. Season liberally with fresh black pepper and salt to taste. Garnish with parsley and more cheese, if desired.
Photo: Jenna Johansen. Credit: Troy Cone