For the past two weeks, our local grocery store has featured large displays of cantaloupe melons from Guatemala.
Tony mentioned them to me several times before I pointed out that we still had a package of prosciutto ham at home in our refrigerator, left over from our Easter feast.
Prosciutto and melon is a classic food pairing in Italy, commonly featured as an appetizer, or antipasto. Traditionally, the melon is sliced into long, crescent-shaped pieces and served with a slice of prosciutto wrapped around it.
When Tony first made this dish for me many years ago, I balked at the use of cantaloupe, and tried to reason with him that the sweeter, and firmer, honeydew melon would be much better.
"But then it wouldn't be prosciutto con melone," he said. His response was so simple - and typically Italian - that it left little room for argument. Tony assured me, when paired with prosciutto, the balance of savory and sweet flavors would bring out the best in the cantaloupe. And he was right.
Prosciutto, or Parma ham, is a cured Italian meat made from the hind leg or thigh of the pig. The meat is cured in salt for two months, then air-dried for at least eight more months before serving.
Tony recalls that in Etobicoke, the Toronto neighborhood where he was raised, there were several Italian families who made their own prosciutto, curing it on hooks attached to the ceiling of their basements.
Prosciutto is Tony's favorite deli meat, and was a staple in his family's home. One of his fondest memories of this Italian specialty comes from accompanying his mother on trips to their local butcher, the Savoia Meat Market. While they would wait for the butcher to prepare their order, Mr. Savoia would always make Tony a Panini of fresh Italian bread with a generous portion of his prosciutto.
Prosciutto is served in paper-thin slices, and has a silky, almost buttery texture. A delicious blend of salty and sweet, it's so good you might be tempted to eat it by itself. But when paired with the cantaloupe, this simple peasant creation assumes an air of casual elegance.
When buying cantaloupe, look for a melon that is light tan in color with green lines running across it, and avoid any fruit with dents or bruises. Next, feel the melon; it should be firm but not rock hard. If you're planning to eat it within a day or two after purchasing, you'll want a melon that has a little give when you press your thumb into it.
And finally, don't be afraid to smell the melon. Give it a good sniff - a ripe cantaloupe should smell similar to a freshly cut one. If there is no smell, it's under-ripe. If your nose picks up a very strong, fruity scent, or an unpleasant aroma, it's probably overripe.
For this recipe, Tony is departing from the traditional presentation, opting instead to serve the sliced cantaloupe over a layer of prosciutto. He then drizzles the platter with a reduction of balsamic vinegar.
This simple ingredient is made by cooking regular balsamic vinegar until it is reduced by half and achieves a syrupy consistency. This final touch enhances the dish with its tart, tangy sweetness, and adds a dramatic contrast to the lovely pink and melon colors on the platter. Buon appetito!
Prosciutto e Melone
Serves 4 to 6
½ cantaloupe melon, sliced into ¼-inch pieces, seeds and skin removed
8 to 10 slices of Prosciutto (the packaged variety comes pre-sliced; if ordering from a deli, request paper-thin slices and have them place deli paper between each slice so they do not stick together.)
Balsamic reduction, 1 to 2 tablespoons for drizzling
Extra virgin olive oil, 1 to 2 tablespoons for drizzling and 1 tablespoon for greens
1 cup spring greens, tossed lightly with olive oil and sea salt
Lay prosciutto slices on a plate or platter, slightly overlapping to cover the entire surface.
Arrange the cantaloupe slices over the prosciutto in a spiral design. Drizzle the platter with balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil.
To finish, place the spring greens in the center of the plate and serve.
To prevent the meat from drying out, this dish is best when served immediately.
However, if you need to do some early preparation, you can cut the melon in advance and store in an airtight container for up to one day before serving.
The prosciutto can be layered on the plate/platter, but be sure to cover well with plastic wrap to prevent drying. Store in the refrigerator for up to one day.
Mix the greens with olive oil just before serving.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups regular balsamic vinegar (not the high-end, aged variety)
Place the vinegar in a small sauce pot or sauté pan and cook over high heat until it reaches a boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook until the vinegar has been reduced by half and a syrupy consistency is achieved, approximately 20 minutes.
Refrigerate for up to one month.
This column was written exclusively for The Forum.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com or http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.