Genius Recipes

The Italian Pasta Trick No One Talks About

How to make this traditional pesto number even better? Nancy Harmon Jenkins says relax.

August 14, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Sam Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


When a kitchen trick makes something both better-tasting and easier to cook, you have to wonder which came first. (Or don’t wonder, and just send your fork a-twirl in a mess of pesto-speckled noodles, which is what you came to do.)

On first glance, this recipe could have been any other pesto pasta recipe on the internet (there are—oh—3.1 million of them), but, for a few reasons, this one caught my eye. For one thing, I implicitly trust what now has to be my favorite Food52 Hotline thread of all time (1), in which readers shared the best thing they’d cooked all year (2). I also admire the recipe’s maker, Nancy Harmon Jenkins—the olive oil expert and cookbook author who we have to thank for popularizing the very notion of the Mediterranean diet. (3)

And then I noticed that, unlike in some versions of this classic pesto pasta from Liguria, the recipe Jenkins published in The New York Times in 1997 (4) calls for adding all your vegetables to cook with the pasta in a well-timed swim. In go the potato slices first, then the green beans, and then the pasta. After bubbling together, they’re hauled out to mingle with pesto and then, in short order, your mouth.

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Top Comment:
“I am Genoese and have lots of relatives in the USA and in Genoa. My Italian cousins all have a normal, healthy size. The only overweight ones (me included) were raised in America on American diets. The key, I believe, is the Italians limit their pasta intake, and eat lots of vegetables and fruit. I occasionally eat pasta, but have learned to eat lots of vegetables (great with olive oil) and fruit, and my weight is declining.”
— Richard B.
Comment

When I asked Jenkins about this technique, she told me that home cooks in Italy layer vegetables straight into the pasta pot often, famously with tenerumi (the young leaves of a squash that grows in Sicily), and almost always with broccoli rabe. Not only is this method much faster and more mentally streamlined than the rigor of fishing out each vegetable the moment it’s cooked just right, but the pasta absorbs some of the flavor in the vegetables, too. “It’s one of those Italian techniques that gets missed out,” Jenkins told me, “like making a sauce and finishing cooking the pasta in [it],” so that the noodles and seasoning become one.

“You’re not going to do it with something like eggplant,” Jenkins then said. “Because I think boiled eggplant is one of the worst foods in the world. But any kind of green!”

Knowing that Jenkins has very high standards, I was curious about the potential inexactness of the method. What if the only green beans you could find were quite fat and squeaky (or matchstick-thin)? The potatoes starchier, the pasta a thick linguine instead of the traditional trenette?

“For the potatoes, it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re done—it’s okay if they break up a little. The green beans,” she admitted, “you don’t want to be soggy.” But even that depends on personal taste.

Then she told me a story about Benedetto Cavalieri, founder of the eponymous pasta brand. As Jenkins related, when told that the wagon wheel pasta his company invented in the 1930s cooked unevenly, Cavalieri responded, “But of course that’s the whole point of it—so you end up with different textures on the plate.” Some perfectly al dente, some even more stiff to the bite, some downright soft (5).

This stuck with me. I’ve cast the same judgment on poor wagon wheels before—no more. There is a similar beauty to the green beans being softer and sweeter one week, firmer the next; the potatoes jumbling to bits in the sauce sometimes, or staying resilient coins another. In essence, Jenkins was telling me, “Relax.”

(1) After this one, of course.

(2) …in 2016—it’s the conversation that keeps on giving! Braised chicken, Pasta con Ceci, Hawaiian pizza. This pesto pasta was the best thing Kevin G. had made.

(3) On top of that, her most recent book with her daughter Sara is all about seasonal pasta.

(4) Incidentally, this was the week the Living section (before there was a Food section) was first published in color.

(5) She did implore that we try making the pesto the old-fashioned way just once with a rough-surfaced mortar and pestle, to experience the silky texture that’s hard to describe. But pesto in the food processor is just fine for dinner tonight.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to Food52er Kevin G. for this one!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Virginia
    Virginia
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    Anna Fiore
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    Barbara Dawson
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    Yirgach
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    HBRose
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

20 Comments

Virginia August 14, 2019
I don't often prepare pasta, but this recipe just jumped out at me--the cooking method is wonderfully direct (plus I already had all the ingredients in the fridge & cupboard). I followed the measurements as given, though doubled the amount of potato & green beans. Plus, I reduced the cooking time of each vegetable to 3 min. Was quite pleased with the results, but I think the dish could benefit with even more of those 2 veggies. I served it with a pile of fresh tomatoes from my little garden--quintessentially SUMMER!
 
Anna F. August 14, 2019
Nancy Harmon Jenkin's Mediterranean Diet cookbook is my all time favorite! All the recipes are genius in their simplicity. Never made something I didn't love from it. I bought it originally for my dad when he had heart trouble, but I loved it so much that I then bought it for myself and for my sister!
 
Barbara D. August 14, 2019
Or you can add veggies the last 10 or so minutes. I add peas a lot to pasta, my Sicilian grandmother did this or for pasta with veggies carrots, peas, snow peas, peppers red and green. And add a Alfredo sauce. Summer dish or some times just cheese and pasta water. One pot wonders!
 
Yirgach August 14, 2019
While I enjoy the simplicity of this recipe, I would never, ever boil any vegetable.
Steam, roast or grill first, but never, ever boil. Too many flavors and nutrients get thrown out with the water.
Same reason to use fresh pasta instead of dried. A world of difference.
It's worth the effort, your body will thank you.
 
Sharon I. August 15, 2019
Just don't throw out the water -- all those veggie nutrients! Put the leftover liquid in a strong ziplock, store it flat in the freezer for your next soup or whatever. . . for me, not only do I have those nutrients available but cooking vegs in the pasta water saves the time taken for cooking the vegs, and/or the extra water for cooking them separately. As I age, I try to think of Mother Earth a lot more than I used to!
 
Millie J. August 17, 2019
When I boil vegetables (especially potatoes), #1, I use as little cooking water as possible, and #2, I drink the leftover water after it cools down a little. A treat reserved for the cook!
 
HBRose August 14, 2019
Yep my son-in-law from Piemonte does this all the time and now - says the laziest cook ever - I do too.
 
cookinginvictoria August 14, 2019
I have been making this recipe ever summer since it was first published in the New York Times, and I adore it. I remember it being one of the first recipes featured when the Dining section received its makeover! And I must have absorbed this lesson from my Italian great-grandmother without even thinking about it because I always cook the veggies first in boiling water (especially broccoli rabe) and then add the pasta afterward. It may be lazy but it's also quite delicious! Welcome back, Kristin -- hope that your transition back to work has been smooth and that you are enjoying motherhood. It won't be long before your little one is eating pasta and steamed green beans! :)
 
Richard B. August 14, 2019
YES! YES! Potatoes in the pesto! Exactly. All my parents, grandparents, great grandparents came to the USA from Genoa. I still remember a meal one of my genoese grandmothers cooked. Pasta with pesto, with a slice of potato. (At that meal I learned my first Italian word-Mangia!) I once ate pasta with pesto at a good restaurant in Genoa, the potato was included. Many times I have suggested this idea to other Italo-Americans and all I get is a blank look. Genoese cooks have followed this recipe for generations. Thank you for confirming my memories.
 
Tina L. August 14, 2019
It's quite annoying to have the ads on the left side of the screen overlapping your content. PLEASE adjust the placement!!
 
Lisa August 14, 2019
I didnt realize everyone didnt do this. (I am Italian) I also thought it was a lazy cook thing. (No judgement at all from me!)
I do pasta and broccoli a lot- if the broccoli is done and the pasta still isnt I'll use a slotted spoon to get the brocolli out - because over cooked broccoli is gross.
 
Rhonda35 August 14, 2019
Not really a "lazy cook" thing at all - it's actually an old water-saving trick. You've been helping the environment all these years, Lisa! :-)
 
Lisa August 14, 2019
Waste no, want not! :)
 
[email protected] August 14, 2019
I think this is a fabulous idea, cannot wait to try it. If anyone has done something similar using gluten free pasta and has any tips I'd love to hear them.
 
Jessica August 14, 2019
Why potatoes with pasta? Talk about carb overload and spiking blood sugar spike! Talk about getting fat!
 
Nancy H. August 14, 2019
Tradition.
 
Richard B. August 14, 2019
I am Genoese and have lots of relatives in the USA and in Genoa. My Italian cousins all have a normal, healthy size. The only overweight ones (me included) were raised in America on American diets. The key, I believe, is the Italians limit their pasta intake, and eat lots of vegetables and fruit. I occasionally eat pasta, but have learned to eat lots of vegetables (great with olive oil) and fruit, and my weight is declining.
 
BR95510 August 14, 2019
Carbs are not the enemy. We eat a plant-based diet consisting of plenty of carbs and veggies. We are in better shape than people half our age (both a few sides of 70), and neither of us are anywhere near "fat."
 
Sharon I. August 15, 2019
YOU talk about getting fat, Jessica. I, for one, will spend calories washing the dishes instead of using the dishwasher, then doing a vigorous dance with the kids while pretending to sweep the kitchen and deck, and maybe humming as I go. I'm going into this with an open mind, and I LIKE it.
 
Megan C. August 15, 2019
No, high fructose corn syrup, lack of excessive, and poor understanding of nutrition are responsible for “getting fat”. There are so many goodies here, please approach food from other countries with an open mind, and not with the newest fad diet blinding you.