We saw some fresh figs in the market the other day and were reminded of the simplest of dishes: prosciutto – ham that’s been carefully dry-cured for 8 to 24 months – and lush, gently-perfumed fruit like figs, melons, peaches, apricots or plumcots in summer…comice pears, fresh or roasted, in fall. We love this classic combo for breakfast, midnight supper, lone-lazy-dog supper, light lunch, and of course, appetizer.
There is a secret to a marriage of only two or three ingredients like this: that they be at their best. The fruit should be truly ripe and fragrant. The prosciutto should be of fine quality and sliced to order – NOT pre-sliced who-knows-when? and sealed in plastic packages which seem to suffocate its flavors and cause its creamy texture to turn rubbery. This means planning ahead a bit in order to have an ingredient so delicious and complete it requires hardly any effort at to serve or eat. Once you understand how prosciutto works, you can make it work for you. Here’s what you need to know…
Prosciutto is best eaten within a few hours of being sliced, two days MAX if it’s well wrapped and refrigerated (as soon as it’s sliced it begins to change), so that’s your window. Buy it from a store known for quality (not mass-produced ones like Boar’s Head), where they slice their hams to order. If you are unfamiliar with dry-cured hams, your best bet is to buy Prosciutto di Parma, one of the world’s great hams, which will have a crown branded into the side that identifies it as the real thing and is a good assurance of quality (feel free to ask to see it). If you like bolder-flavored Prosciutto di Parma, look for a more aged one; the rivet at the top of the hock will show the month and the year the ham was began. Ten months from that date is a young ham; fifteen to eighteen months is optimal… OR go with another ham you know to be delicious, like Jamon Iberico from Spain…
…or one of the great artisan dry-cured ham makers in Americas these days. We are fans La Guercia’s stunning prosciutto made in Iowa from acorn-fed organic Berkshire pigs, and the wonderful lomo (a dry cured pork loin) and culatello, from the “heart” of the leg that Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad) masterminded at Salumi in Seattle; we’re planning to check out Boccalone prosciutto when we go to San Francisco next month. (We’ve been known to serve lightly smoked, dry-cured Southern hams – like Colonel Newsom’s from Kentucky or A.B. Vannoy’s from North Carolina – like prosciutto.)
Always feel free to ask the counterman for a taste of whatever interests you; tasting different hams side-by-side will be a revelation. But DON’T let him trim off the thick layer of creamy white fat. It is delicious – like a kind of estoteric butter – and is part of the experience. (Check out Regina Schramblings liberating article about pork fat that ran in Slate a year or so ago.)
Just-sliced prosciutto is a great thing unto itself, the slices arranged side-by-side in a plate; it is also satisfying on some excellent bread with fine unsalted butter. We view a good prosciutto as an essential resource and have been known to buy a fat chunk to keep in the fridge for slicing ourselves – it will last several weeks wrapped in wax paper – on our cheap home slicer, or by hand with a long, thin tensile knife usually reserved for slicing smoked salmon.
Note: If you want to bring prosciutto home from Europe, we recommend buying a chunk and having it sealed in Cryovac. When home, unwrap, let air out in the fridge for a day or two covering the cut end only with a piece of plastic wrap, or wax paper. Slice it as you need it.
If you want to cook with prosciutto, the shank – the last couple of inches left after a whole leg has been sliced – often offers great value.
Recipe (well, an approach, really): Prosciutto with Figs and Raspberries
You can replace the figs and raspberries, with ripe, fragrant melon – from honeydew and Cassaba to Charantais, peaches, apricots or plumcots. In winter, we love it with Roasted Pears. We find a grind of fresh pepper, or a few slivers of fresh basil or thyme leaves can add a nice hit of flavor, like a teeny surprise in the midst of fruit and ham, although the greater the ham, the less embellishment you need.
12 paper thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, or other fine dry-cured ham
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
4 ripe medium figs
1 cup raspberries
6 lime wedges (optional)
8 to 12 small basil leaves (optional)
On each of 4 large dinner plates, loosely drape 3 slices of prosciutto in a single layer.
Slice each fig into 4 sections, either wedges or slices. Arrange the figs on each plate and scatter 1/4 cup raspberries across figs. If desired, garnish one lime wedge and torn basil leaves. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Squeeze a few drops of lime juice from remaining lime wedges over figs just before serving. Pass a peppermill.
Related post: Recipe: Roasted Pears for Sweet or Savory Improvisations