Prosciutto e Melone, Kicked Up a Notch


Insalata di Melone e Prosciutto Croccante con Formaggio di Capra

No, I did not just sneak off to Italy without telling you. I haven’t even acquired any new Italian cookbooks recently. It must just be something about the current combination of very un-Scottish summer heat and the sticky-sweaty stupor it induces that compels me to look  to other sun-soaked destinations for culinary inspiration. As you know, it started last week with gelato. But not content to leave Italy after only one course (even if it was dessert), I’ve decided to linger a little longer and at least enjoy something typical of the other end of an Italian summertime meal.

What I found myself craving was the famous sweet-salty and heart-breakingly delicious combination of prosciutto e melone, which is just really the fancy Italian name for cured ham and melon. It seems like a deceptively simple dish, but like a good gelato, it’s easy to do it wrong. Too many times I’ve had melon that wasn’t quite ripe, and prosciutto that was hard and stringy or overpoweringly salty. The prosciutto in particular is where restaurants often skimp, substituting cheaper versions that lack the complexity and texture of the premium stuff. Real prosciutto di Parma is salt-cured and air-dried for up to eighteen months before sale, resulting in a delicacy that while not cheap, embodies the very essence of ‘slow food’. And when prosciutto e melone is done right, it’s a nothing short of a revelation: rindless wedges of ice cold, impossibly sweet summer melon, each swathed like a newborn baby in folds of butter-soft and nutty prosciutto, tender and supple enough to eat with a spoon. Nothing else adorns this dish because nothing needs to; the components complete each other like yin and yang, bread and butter, barbecue and beer.
That said, I’ve always believed food should be fun, and sometimes there is no bigger thrill than taking something sacred and turning it on its head. I saw a recipe for a salad similar to this one in a food magazine which attempted to play on both the common melon-feta affinity and the prosciutto and melon taste marriage. I tried it out and found it to be too overwhelming – the melon’s subtle perfume and sweetness was bullied into imperceptability by the saltiness of both prosciutto and feta. The second time I tried it I kept the prosciutto but axed the feta in favor of a soft mild goat’s cheese, which changed everything. It’s a delicious study in contrasts: the cold juicy melon, the creamy soft cheese, the crisp salty prosciutto, and everything enhanced by a sweet and tangy balsamic-honey vinaigrette. I’ve even pulled an Emeril and ‘kicked it up a notch’ with a little sprinkle of spicy chili. It certainly won’t replace the original, but it makes a refreshingly different and altogether mighty fine alternative way to beat the heat.

Insalata di Melone e Prosciutto Croccante con Formaggio di Capra
serves: 4

1 small ripe melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, charentais, galia…)
1/2 lb./200g soft mild goat cheese
4 oz./100g prosciutto (you can substitute any other cured European ham)

For vinaigrette:
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
pinch hot chili powder
pinch salt
freshly ground black pepper

Halve the melon, scoop out the seeds and cut away the rind. Slice as thinly as possible (a mandoline, if you are lucky enough to have one, would be just the ticket), into long flat ribbons.

Lay the prosciutto or pancetta in a nonstick pan and turn the heat on to medium. Cook, flipping once, until the fat is rendered out and the prosciutto is crispy (watch it carefully as it easily burns). Set aside to drain on paper towels.

Mix together the vinaigrette ingredients. Arrange the melon on plates, crumble the goat cheese and prosciutto over the top, and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Serve immediately.


[Update: this photo has been entered placed first in the July 2005 edition of Does My Blog Look Good in This?, hosted by Andrew at Spittoon! A big thanks to the judges and be sure to check out the other fantastic photos!