Sara Jenkins Channels the Mediterranean in Manhattan

There are two things people always say about Sara Jenkins: Number one, she’s ingredient-driven, a cook led by the lure of the market, the freshest catch at the fishmonger, the especially ripe oozy cheese. And, number two, she follows the olive-oil and sun-drenched lead of the Mediterranean, most especially Italy.

But if you think about it, says Jenkins—who has led the kitchens at 50 Carmine, Patio Dining, Il Buco, and I Coppi, the Tuscan spot that was her first Manhattan gig—they’re really the same thing. Her new pan-Mediterranean cookbook, Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, cowritten with Mindy Fox, is named after two of the region’s most iconic ingredients for a reason.

“For me, Mediterranean food is very spontaneous,” says Jenkins, cooking in her tiny kitchen one recent sunny Sunday afternoon. “It’s based on what’s best at the market.”

Since 1999, when the owners of I Coppi lured her from a kitchen in Florence, Jenkins has gotten the nod for cooking the kind of food that isn’t exactly seat of the pants, but is revelatory in its rusticity, typically an eloquent composition of few flavors—a throat-burning olive oil, the funky, fatty cured pork, the subtle fresh cheese.

It’s the kind of meal you think you’re going to go home and make yourself after a trip to Murray’s Cheese and the Union Square Greenmarket, but never quite can.

If you could, your friends would be clamoring for a spot at your table. This Sunday, for example, Jenkins turns out a mouthwatering corn-bacon risotto, Greek yogurt covered with a crop of quartered radishes and speckled with the thyme-like Lebanese spice zaatar, and a meaty fillet of broiled blackfish smeared with cumin, fennel pollen, and ginger from a silver Indian tin spice tray she stole from her brother. She effortlessly adds shaggy red potatoes boiled in their jackets, then smashed and fried in a cast-iron skillet with sturdy sprigs of fresh rosemary, and Crete’s version of panzanella—”I’m totally in love with it”—a mess of toasted bread, greenmarket tomatoes, feta and capers left to soak for the hour.

Jenkins—who just opened Porchetta, an East Village eatery serving Italian street-cart pork sandwiches and little else—has always told reporters she just likes to cook. She looks the part, too, barefoot at the stove in a wrinkly apron and a flowing green skirt, stirring the risotto with a wooden spoon or cutting cheese for her 16-month-old son.

“He likes piave, Parmigiana and aged Gouda,” she says. “I have high hopes.” That risotto is a simple creation, made with fresh sweet corn and candy cane striped slivers of local bacon, its rich pork stock infused with the spent cobs. Smoky, rich and silky, it says a lot about Jenkins: She cooks what she likes, placing appetite over authenticity.

“You wouldn’t ever eat this in Italy,” she says, stirring, stirring, stirring, adding stock by the ladleful. Italians rarely eat fresh corn, and they’d use pancetta or guanciale, not bacon. “But it’s true to the spirit.”

It’s a spirit she accrued by both nature and nuture. Jenkins’s father was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, and she spent formative years in London, Paris, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Rome and Madrid. In 1971, her parents—her mother is the Mediterranean food goddess Nancy Harmon Jenkins—packed up the kids for Tuscany, where they’d bought a tumble-down house.

(Before you picture paradise, remember that in 1971 Tuscany wasn’t yet Tuscany. Her neighbors got indoor plumbing in 1980.)

She returned to the States as a teenager for high school, then graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, and went on to cook in Boston for Todd English. Eventually she ended up back in Italy, working at a restaurant in Florence and traveling.

She got to soak up the ways of Italian food, but says she was never really appreciated as a chef. “You’re an American,” she says of the Italian attitude, “it’s like, ‘what could you possibly know about food?'” So when I Coppi came calling for a cook with her kind of style, she didn’t hesitate. She insisted on good ingredients, she recalls, “and they
said, ‘that’s exactly what we’re looking for.’ I think I was on a plane in, like, three days.”

And those of us who’d like to keep Jenkins on this side of the Atlantic would be perfectly happy if those Italians never caught on.

Cretan Bread, Tomato and Feta Salad

About 2 c. Hard, dry barley bread broken into pieces; can substitute other hard, dried bread but the barley bread is the traditional Cretan way
2–3 large or medium heirloom tomatoes, ideally in different colors
salt to taste
1 c. crumbled Greek sheeps milk feta
½ c. pitted black olives such as Gaeta
or Kalamata
1 T. capers
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch arugula or 1 c. picked whole
basil leaves (optional)

Place the bread in a salad or serving bowl. Cut tomatoes into large chunks and place over bread. Sprinkle with a couple of pinches of salt. Let sit about 15 minutes so the tomato juices start coming out and softening the bread. Add feta, olives, capers and olive oil and arugula or basil if using. Toss and serve, adding salt if necessary.

Corn Risotto

2 T. olive oil
2 T. unsalted butter, divided
2 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/8″ pieces
1 small onion, finely diced
4–6 ears fresh corn, kernels sliced off
and cobs reserved
2 c. C arnaroli rice
1 c. dry white wine
5 c. homemade chicken or pork broth heated to a simmer with the reserved cobs
1½ c. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
or grana padana
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, until melted. Add bacon and cook, stirring constantly, until bacon starts to crisp, about 2

Add onions and pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until onions start to wilt and turn translucent. Add corn and cook until starting to brown and caramelize. Add rice and, stirring constantly, cook for 5 minutes. Add wine; stir until absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup broth and cook, stirring constantly, until mostly absorbed, about 3 minutes.

Add ½ cup of broth and, stirring, cook until mostly absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes. Continue adding the broth by ½ cupfuls, stirring constantly, until you have 1 cup broth left. Add ½ cup of the remaining broth, stir another 2 to 3 minutes, then add the remaining ½ cup broth, and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 final minutes. Risotto should be tender yet slightly firm. Remove from heat. Stir in cheese and remaining butter; cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. Serve immediately with freshly ground pepper and extra Parmigiano, if desired.

Photo credit: June Russell