Nancy Harmon Jenkins

March 19, 2013

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We sit down with Nancy Harmon Jenkins: cookbook author, authority on the Mediterranean diet, and leader of many a Tuscan food immersion.

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The internet has been aflutter over the past month with news of the Mediterranean diet and its newly proven benefits. However, Nancy Harmon Jenkins has been singing its praises for almost 20 years, beginning with the publication of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook in 1994 (and an updated version published in 2008). A writer, historian, and lover of all things olive oil, Nancy is a highly-regarded authority on the Mediterranean way of eating and its nutritional perks. 

These days, Nancy hosts cooking getaways at Villa Campestri, an Olive Oil Resort in the Tuscan countryside. Here, participants immerse themselves in Italian culture and cooking, learning firsthand how the best olive oil is made -- and what it tastes like. Sound tempting? Make porchetta with Sara Jenkins in April, or study the Mediterranean diet with Deborah Madison in October. Just be sure to send us a postcard.

What are your thoughts on the recent research regarding the Mediterranean diet? In your opinion, have there been any new developments since you published The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook?
The latest research by a group of Spanish scientists confirms what we’ve always said -- this diet is easy, tasty, good for you, and fun, too. I’d feel a little better calling it The Mediterranean Way of Eating instead of “diet”, but I think we’re stuck with the latter.

What new developments? Things just keep getting better, especially with olive oil. When my first book was published, we knew olive oil lowered LDL cholesterol and maintained HDL (“good”) cholesterol. But now we know that extra-virgin olive oil also contains powerful polyphenols, especially antioxidants. The antioxidants found in vegetables and olive oil also protect against many types of cancer, diabetes, and other similar lifestyle diseases.

What are some of the easiest ways for Americans to incorporate aspects of the Mediterranean diet into their lives? 
Probably the most important is to switch from whatever fats they’re now using to extra-virgin olive oil. I think a good 80 to 90% of the fat you use should be extra-virgin. Beyond that, cutting back on the amount of meat, sugar, salt, and saturated fat that we consume is a good idea -- which means cutting out most processed food. 

What is the lesson you most want the visitors of Villa Campestri to learn?
I want our guests to understand that extra-virgin olive oil is a remarkable ingredient, that it can be used in the kitchen for cooking as well as at the table for garnishing, and that it comes in a great variety of flavor profiles. I also hope our guests will end up with a firm understanding of what rancid and fusty oil tastes like -- so they never again have to suffer the disappointment of bad oil.

How did you first become involved with Villa Campestri? What are your favorite things about visiting the Villa?
I met Paolo Pasquali, the genius behind Villa Campestri, at a conference at the Culinary Institute of America several years ago. Since then we’ve become good friends as I’ve discovered the incredible depth of his knowledge and his passionate commitment to olive oil excellence -- as well as to the incredible beauty of Villa Campestri. What I love most here is the sense of being deeply connected to the finest of Tuscan traditions and Tuscan history.

What is your favorite thing to cook for yourself when you're home alone?
That’s hard to say. I love a supper with just a couple of eggs fried in olive oil and a salad of bitter greens on the side. Pasta is also a favorite -- there’s a pasta dish I love from Puglia, made by cooking bitter greens like chicory or broccoli rabe, then cooking orecchiette right in with the greens. It’s spectacular dressed with olive oil, chopped garlic, and a pinch of red chili flakes -- and it sums up for me the whole Mediterranean diet: good ingredients, handled simply, full of flavor and health benefits, and a quick and satisfying addition to the table.

Looking for more ways to integrate the Mediterranean diet into your own? Start with these 11 dishes from the Food52 community.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull