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Prosciutto - The 'Skinny' on this Elegant Ham
I am not a fan of the traditional American ham, the one that appears on so many tables at Easter, Christmas and even Thanksgiving. I used to work with a woman who would swoon over the mention of a “Honey Baked Ham”, which is one of those hams sold by the bazillion at shopping malls in every state of the union. It’s a large bone-in ham cured in a ‘secret’ marinade, then smoked for hours over a ‘unique blend of hardwood chips’. My co-worker is not the only woman who has swooned over ham. I distinctly remember a giggle and a blush when Sydey Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) receives the gift of a Virginia Ham from President Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) as he begins their official courtship in "An American President". As much as I love that movie, and that scene in particular, my feelings are more akin to those of Sam in Dr. Suess's beloved "Green Eggs and Ham". When it comes to ham, "I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like green eggs and ham."
That is…until my tender and uninformed palette met Prosciutto. While both ‘ham’ and ‘prosciutto’ are made from the same cut of meat, American ham is cured in a process which encourages the retention of water, while prosciutto is dry cured in a process that intensifies both the sweetness of the flavor and the aroma. This delectable Italian ham is so important to the cuisine of Italy that it is covered by a ‘Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). When you purchase Prosciutto di Parma you will know that it comes from Parma, a city in the Italian region Emilia-Romagna, which is located in North-Central Italy, south of Milan and North of Florence. If you purchase Prosciutto di San Daniele, an equally famous prosciutto, you can be assured that it is made from the thighs of pigs bred in one of ten regions in Northern Italy, and matured at San Daniele di Fruili, a city in the Italian region Fruili-Venezia Guilia, which is located in the uppermost corner of northeast Italy. While other regions are known for their prosciuttos as well, these are the two types that are most readily available at fine delicatessens in the States.
Very decent thinly sliced prosciutto can be purchased packaged in most grocery stores. When I do not have a deli that carries the whole hams, I am happy to find these packages. Whenever possible, I prefer to choose between the 'Prosciutto di Parma' and the 'Prosciutto di San Daniele' then watch the butcher slice paper thin slivers that will be placed between individual waxed papers and wrapped up in package like a present. Good prosciutto is expensive, and great prosciutto is very expensive. A whole ham can cost anywhere from $220 to $600 depending upon its' size and quality. The good news is that it takes very little to produce the flavor that you are looking for in a pasta, salad or appetizer. Even the coveted Saltimboca, a famous italian dish where escalopes of veal are wrapped in prosciutto then pan fried, only requires several ounces of this precious commodity.
My all time favorite use of prosciutto is in a simple, healthy and delicious past a dish that I found in the pages of one of my favorite cooking magazines, Cooking Light. Over the years that I have been cooking this dish I have made several simple modifications that I love. I use slightly more prosciutto, slightly less radicchio and add prawns. The two flavors, when mingled, are incredible.
Pasta with Braised Radicchio
1 T. olive oil
3 cloves garlic slivered
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into pieces
1 large head radicchio, cored and sliced
Black pepper to taste
1 14 oz. reduced sodium chicken broth
1 lb. dried spaghetti
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
8 large prawns shelled and deveined
Bring a large pot of water to boil for pasta and cook pasta al dente. In a large skillet heat oil over medium high and add garlic and crushed red pepper. Add prosciutto and cook quickly until crisp. Add prawns and cook until pink. Add radicchio and cook until wilted. Pour in can of chicken broth and let simmer for another five minutes. Toss with drained pasta and garnish with parmesan cheese.