Prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale and other cured meats add hearty accents to many dishes, and can alter the equation when it comes to wine.
Less than a decade ago, it was impossible to buy genuine Italian prosciutto in the United States. Indeed, dozens of Italian salumi, or cured pork products, were not allowed into this country. Among them were guanciale, lardo, mortadella, pancetta, salsiccia, soppressata, speck, prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele. We had domestic versions of a few—primarily prosciutto, salami and pancetta, if you knew where to find it—but none approached the quality of the real thing.
The restrictions didn’t stop tourists who had discovered these fine meats overseas from smuggling them back into the U.S. It was not uncommon for travelers to stuff sausages into socks, roll pancetta in a sweater, or tuck a whole prosciutto into a shoulder bag. Honest eyes and a sweet smile got many of these epicures through customs.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, customs regulations were relaxed. Delis throughout America began to display the rosy-hued hams and scarlet sausages of the Italian countryside side by side with their domestic counterparts.
The All-Important Pig
The pig has been important throughout Italy for centuries, and virtually every part of it is used. Because there was not enough feed to keep them through the winter, the animals were slaughtered in the late fall. Some of the meat was eaten fresh, but most was salted and cured in a variety of ways, from tiny sausages made of trimmings, to huge hams hung to dry for months. Even the thick, fatty skin was used, sometimes in a dish known as codene in Naples and gudene in Sicily, where it was cut into large squares, covered with garlic, pine nuts, lemon zest and Italian parsley, then rolled, tied and simmered in tomato sauce for hours. Sliced into rounds—little pinwheels of succulent, garlicky fat—and served over spaghetti with meatballs and sausages, the dish is extraordinarily delicious.
The regional cured meats of Italy evolved based not only on indigenous ingredients and tradition but also on climate and cultural influences. “San Daniele [in Friuli-Venezia-Guilia] is colder than Parma,” explains Francesco Antonucci, founding executive chef of Remi in New York City, “and its prosciutto is sweeter than Parma’s.” (San Daniele is also easy to recognize because it’s made with the hoof intact.)
In the far northern region of Tirol, where German culture has been as influential as Italian, you’ll find speck Tirolese, a lean pork cut that is cured, air-dried and lightly smoked; you’ll also find speck in Germany and Austria, but not in other parts of Italy.
In the United States, we probably are as familiar with pancetta—unsmoked Italian bacon that is rolled and tied—as we are prosciutto. Yet even better than pancetta is guanciale, arguably the most tender, delicious cured meat in the universe. Guanciale is made from hog jowls and, like pancetta, is not smoked. In spaghetti Carbonara, it is ambrosial; in risottos, transcendent.
One of the hardest sells is lardo, the very name of which sends most Americans scurrying toward their cholesterol medication. Yet it isn’t quite what it sounds like. Lardo is back fat that is cured in salt and herbs. It looks like a slab of bacon, but with a single pale stripe of marbled meat running through it. Sliced as thin as wax paper, which it resembles visually, and served on top of hot toasted bread, it is a delightful appetizer, though apparently not one that American diners are buying.
“I cannot sell lardo,” Chef Antonucci says, “I have to give it away.” Remi’s menu includes an appetizer of five Italian cured meats, served with polenta, artichokes and fried Parmigiano. The meats include soppressata, mortadella, speck, culetello and bresaola. Made from beef rather than pork, bresaola, salted and dried fillet, is common throughout northern Italy, where the ruby-colored meat is very thinly sliced and used in antipasti and a variety of other dishes.
America’s Cured Meats
With the increasing popularity of imported cured meats, it was inevitable that an enterprising American would attempt to compete for the growing market. Today, you’ll find Italian delis and restaurants offering their own guanciale, pancetta, lardo, bresaola and salamis of all sorts. Some are good; many are far inferior to their Italian counterparts.
“Even when pigs are fed the same diet and the legs are cured in exactly the same way,” Antonucci explains, “the prosciutto from Italy is still better. It’s like coffee; even with the same beans and the same equipment, coffee is better in Italy. Is it the soil? The climate? The water?”
No one has yet made a domestic prosciutto to rival San Daniele’s or Parma’s, but Niman Ranch, the purveyor of premium meats based in Northern California, is doing an outstanding job with several other cured meats. Niman Ranch has benefited from its collaboration with François Vecchio, a butcher and sausage maker originally from Geneva, Switzerland. Vecchio moved to the United States in 1980 and began working with a large meat company, developing a line of premium cured meats, such as salamis in natural casings. He joined Niman in 2002.
“I love the way they treat their animals and I love the quality of their meat, especially the pork,” Vecchio explains. So far, the company has launched lardo, guanciale, pancetta, speck Tirolese, and a cured and smoked beef called most brokli, which he also expects to release soon. All are outstanding, as good as anything I’ve tasted in this country, including the imports. The company’s web site (www.nimanranch.com) puts lardo, guanciale, and all these other tasty morsels within easy reach of the entire country, a great thing if you don’t happen to live near a deli that sells premium Italian products.
There are dozens of easy ways to serve these meats (see Table). Once you become familiar with their flavors and textures, it is easy to incorporate them into your cooking. Here are a few of my favorite recipes.
|A Few Good Ways to Use Cured Meats |
Prosciutto and pancetta are familiar to home cooks these days, but what about the lesser-known cuts and cures? A slab of lardo in the fridge won’t do you any good if you don’t know what to do with it. Here are a few suggestions that will send you to your local Italian deli for more in record time:
· Dice and render the meat (fry over medium heat until the meat releases its fat); sauté onions, leeks, shallots or garlic in it, and use as a base for soups, pasta sauces, and bread stuffings for poultry and artichokes.
· Render and use to sauté fish, such as sardines, sanddabs and sole.
· Dice and render; sauté sliced chard or radicchio, add a splash of red vinegar, and serve as a side dish.
· Wrap thin slices around fish fillets and boned quail before grilling or broiling.
· Mix minced lardo and crushed garlic together and spoon onto minestrone or creamy polenta just before serving.
· Top bruschetta with thin shavings of lardo, following by diced tomatoes and garlic.
· Use in traditional risotto alla milanese, in place of pancetta or beef marrow.
Speck Tirolese, Bresaola
· Slice paper thin, arrange on a white plate around a mound of cannellini beans tossed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and serve as antipasti.
· Arrange thin slices on a large platter, alternating them with thin slices of seasonal melon; toss young greens with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice and set in the center of the plate.
· Use in any recipe that calls for prosciutto.
· Wrap thin slices around oven-roasted asparagus, season with freshly ground black pepper and serve with a little mascarpone for dipping.
· Serve thinly sliced, with bread, a green salad and chilled white wine alongside, for a simple dinner.
Pistada with Crostini
I first came across a version of this enticing recipe in Carol Field’s Italy in Small Bites (Morrow, 1993). At that time, it was virtually impossible to find lardo in this country, so her recipe called for pancetta. Now that outstanding lardo is available here, the genuine article can be made at any time. It is excellent as an antipasti.
1 baguette, sliced
6 ounces lardo (or fatty pancetta, lean parts removed), diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
Â½ teaspoon fresh rosemary needles, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
Â½ cup minced fresh Italian parsley
Black pepper in a mill
Preheat oven to 275Â°F. Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet and toast, turning once, until they are deep golden brown. Transfer to a platter or basket and cover with a towel to keep warm.
Meanwhile, put the lardo into the workbowl of a food processor and pulse to form a smooth paste. Add the garlic, rosemary, thyme and parsley and pulse again, until the herbs are evenly distributed. Season with salt and several turns of black pepper, pulse again, and transfer to a serving bowl or crock. Serve immediately with the hot crostini. Leftover pistada can be refrigerated, covered, for several days. Makes about one cup.
Wine recommendations: Because of the pistada’s richness, you can serve a high-acid white wine or a robust red wine with this appetizer. Avoid choices that might be too fruit-forward. Try a Gavi, a New Zealand or Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or a Montepulciano.
Celery and Raw Asparagus Salad with Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Quality ingredients are essential for this dish. You must have very fresh asparagus—it was a patch of wild asparagus, just outside my kitchen that inspired the recipe—so that the natural sugars have not begun to turn to starch. You can, however, use another cured meat, such as speck Tirolese or bresaola, in place of the prosciutto di Parma.
6 thick asparagus stalks
8 medium celery stalks, trimmed
6 to 8 thin slices prosciutto di Parma, cut into Â½-inch wide strips
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper in a mill
Chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Snap off and discard the tough stems of the asparagus. Using a sharp knife, cut the asparagus into very thin (1/16-inch) diagonal slices and put them in a wide, shallow bowl. Cut the celery in the same way and add it to the asparagus. Add the prosciutto and toss gently. Season lightly with salt and toss again. Drizzle the olive oil over the top and toss again. Season generously with black pepper. Using a vegetable peeler, make curls of cheese and scatter them on top of the salad. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Wine recommendations: The lean, bright flavors in this dish call out for a white wine, the leaner the better. You won’t go wrong with Sancerre, Arnais or even a French Chardonnay. A Prosecco, or a blanc de blancs or brut Champagne would work well, too. If you use speck or bresaola, the dish will work with a red wine such as a Pinot Nero.
Artichokes with Guanciale and Lemon Stuffing
Any of the cured meats listed below will work, but the dish will never be better than when it is made with cured hog jowls.
6 large artichokes
2 or 3 lemons, zest removed
Â¼ cup olive oil
6 ounces guanciale, pancetta or
6 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of 2 or 3 lemons
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs (see note below)
1 cup minced Italian parsley
4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Black pepper in a mill
Note: To make fresh bread crumbs, cut two- or three-day-old country-style bread into cubes (or tear it into pieces). Place a large handful of cubes in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse until the cubes are reduced to crumbs. If the bread is particularly fresh, the crumbs might be fluffier, in which case you’ll need more than the amount given.
Cut the artichoke stems down to Â½ inch, trim about an inch off the top, spread the leaves out, and use a large heavy spoon to scoop out the smallest inner leaves and the choke. After cutting each artichoke, rub the cut surface with lemon to prevent browning.
Pour a portion of the olive oil into a large, heavy pot, enough to moisten the surface, and heat. Add the guanciale or other meat, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté one minute more. Remove from the heat. Put the breadcrumbs in a large bowl, add the meat mixture, lemon zest, parsley and cheese, and toss. Add enough of the remaining olive oil so that the stuffing sticks together, then squeeze lemon juice over it. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, to taste.
Hold one artichoke over the bowl of stuffing and fill the center of the artichoke. Press the leaves toward the center so that the artichoke closes over the stuffing. Set the pot over medium-low heat, add the remaining olive oil and the first stuffed artichoke, setting it on its side. After you have stuffed each artichoke, add it to the pot, and turn the others, so that by the time all have been stuffed, they have been slightly browned as well.
Add about Â¾-inch of water to the pot, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender. Check the water level now and then and add more if necessary; do not let the artichokes burn. Use tongs to remove the artichokes from the pot, set on a platter and serve. Makes 6 servings.
Wine recommendations: Artichokes pose a problem because they change a wine’s flavor, making pairing a bit more difficult, but certainly not impossible, as some experts insist. A safe choice with this dish, in which the artichoke’s influence is mitigated to some degree by the stuffing, is Frescati. For something a bit more enticing, look for a Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco or Tocai Friulano from Friuli-Venezia Guilia.
Michele Anna Jordan has written 14 books to date, including The BLT Cookbook ($14.95, softcover), just released by Morrow. Her series of documentaries, Sonoma County Appellations, appears on PBS stations nationwide.