Americans love eating prosciutto, just not necessarily buying it. Buying prosciutto, an Italian dry-cured ham, can be confusing. Should you choose prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto San Daniele? Why does it always have to sliced “paper-thin”? Fortunately, there are people like Mark Scarbrough who can demystify the prosciutto-buying process. Indeed, he and his partner Bruce Weinstein, both renowned cookbook authors, can tell you just about everything you’d ever want to know about a pig’s derriere and have done so in their witty, informative cookbook Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010).
I asked Scarbrough to talk some prosciutto. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: I’m seeing prosciutto everywhere from bistros to the supermarket deli. What do you think has led to its expanding popularity?
It’s really all about accessibility. When I was a kid, prosciutto just wasn’t–at least in north Texas in the early ’70s. Oh, maybe it was in some Italian deli somewhere, but we Baptists never went there. We wouldn’t know what to do if we walked in a store and saw a picture of the Pope. Anyway, prosciutto is now available in most supermarkets at the deli counter–and so you don’t have to risk the wrath of your Protestant minister to enjoy it. Plus, you don’t have to drive across town. Always a key.
Q: Buying prosciutto can be confusing. What’s the difference between prosciutto crudo and prosciutto cotto?
Although we in the United States talk about “prosciutto” as the justifiably famous, Italian, dried, cured ham, “prosciutto” is just the Italian word for the cut of pork, not the process to make it. Basically, “prosciutto” is “ham.” So it’s more accurate to call the prosciutto we usually buy “prosciutto crudo”–that is, “raw ham.” Raw? Yep, because it’s cured without being cooked. Got any friends into those crunchy, all-carrot, raw-food diets? Tell them you’re into raw food, too. You love prosciutto crudo. If you want a cooked ham, you want “prosciutto cotto,” best for slicing for sandwiches and wraps.
Q: What’s the difference between prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto San Daniele? Do you prefer one over the other?
You’re talking regional differences here–”from Parma” and “from San Daniele.” Parma, in central Italy, is where the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano is made. Originally, the pigs were fed the whey left over from the cheese-making process–and so the meat has a creamy tang. San Daniele is up in the northeastern Fruili region of Italy–the meat itself tends to have more pronounced sweet notes because of the earthier, less cheesy diet of the pigs. Bruce and I don’t really stand on ceremony when it comes to one over the other, although I will say that I prefer “di Parma” with fruits like figs, peaches, or grapes. Di San Daniele is terrific in baguette sandwiches with crunchy Romaine lettuce.
Q: How should prosciutto be sliced, and why?
Most often, prosciutto crudo is sliced paper thin–and on an industrial meat slicer. It’s almost impossible to shave it that thin at home because 1) our knives are not sharp enough, 2) they’re also not thin enough, and 3) we’re not steady enough after the first glass of Prosecco. However, it’s also great to get a chunk of prosciutto crudo and dice it into small cubes at home. You can use these in a stew or braise, frying them up as you would bacon. You’ll end up with a cleaner, sweeter finish without smoky notes.
Q: If someone doesn’t have access to a good Italian deli, where should he buy it?
Prosciutto crudo is available at the deli counter of most large supermarkets. We’ve got both di Parma and di San Daniele at our local Stop-&-Shop in rural Connecticut! If possible, look for the large hams in the deli case. And look at the hams themselves. Make sure they haven’t dried out from long storage. The meat should be firm and still moist, not cracked or flaky. If so, tell your supermarket to order another ham!
Q: What is the most delicious prosciutto you’ve ever eaten?
I do love culatello, a particularly fatty version of prosciutto crudo (and a bit of an Italian vulgarity in its name). It’s quite rich, almost achingly so, sort of like a cross between lardo (cured pig fat) and di San Daniele. It’s heaven on a hot afternoon with a cool drink in hand.
Q: The best way to eat prosciutto is ….
For breakfast. I love it instead of bacon–with a little cheese, too. It’s an easy start to the day.
Q: When it comes to prosciutto, you should never ….
Hesitate. Because it’s sliced paper-thin, you want to eat it within the next 24 hours. This is not a buy-it-on-Monday-eat-it-on-Saturday affair. Those paper-thin slices can dry out, even when wrapped between sheets of butcher paper or wax paper and sealed in a plastic bag. And once out of the bag, you need to eat it fairly quickly, within an hour at the most. Although sliced prosciutto crudo should be stored in the fridge, it’ll taste best at room temperature–so unwrap a slice or two in the morning, then make your coffee. By the time you’re ready to eat, the ham will be perfect.
Q: To me, prosciutto is…
An easily-found, artisanal product. You don’t have to drive two hundred miles to some small farm or order it over the internet. It’s most likely available where you shop on a regular basis. And if not, may I suggest finding a better supermarket?
For more pork inspiration and scrumptious food writing, visit Mark and Bruce’s blog, Real Food Has Curves.
Now for the give-away! 5 lucky readers will each receive a copy of Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter. Simply leave a comment below saying why you’d like to receive the book. Want more chances to win? Tweet about this post and mention @porkandknife! Winners will be announced Monday, August 7th.
Saltimbocca-Style Chicken Breasts, recipe from Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter
Makes 4 hearty servings
4 (5-ounce ) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
8 paper-thin prosciutto crudo slices
32 basil leaves
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup dry Marsala or dry Madeira
1/4 teaspoons salt
1. Spread a large sheet of plastic wrap on your work surface. Place the 4 breasts on it, spacing them several inches apart. Top with a second sheet of plastic wrap, then pound cutlets to 1/4-inch thickness using the smooth side of a meat mallet. Peel off plastic wrap and set breasts aside.
2. Place a piece of prosciutto on a cutting board. Lay 4 basil leaves on the prosciutto, then top these with 1 pounded chicken breast, laying it on the prosciutto so that the pointy ends of both match up. Lay 4 more basil leaves on the breast, then sprinkle with a pinch of nutmeg. Lay a second prosciutto slice over the breast in the same direction as the slice below and under so that the whole thing looks like a stuffed prosciutto pancake. Set aside and repeat this step 3 times.
3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then swirl in the oil. Add the wrapped chicken breasts and cook 5 minutes on either side, until the prosciutto is lightly browned and even a little crisp and the chicken inside is cooked through. How can you tell if they’re done? You can cut into one with a knife to find out. Or you can try to stick an instant-read meat thermometer right into the meat without the probe poking through and hitting the skillet beneath– in which case the temperature should read about 165 degrees F. Transfer the packets to four serving plates.
4. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in the skillet, then add the mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms give up their liquid and it boils down to a thick glaze.
5. Pour in the wine and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the amount of liquid in the skillet has been reduced to half its original volume, about 2 minutes. No need to measure; just eyeball it.
6. Remove the skillet from the heat and swirl in the remaining 2 teaspoons butter and the salt until the butter melts. Divide this sauce among the four serving plates with the cooked chicken cutlets.
Top photo courtesy, Flickr Creative Commons, Rubber Slippers in Italy. Second photo, Susan Russo.