I have a new favorite secret ingredient. And for those of you who know me well, you won’t be surprised to hear that it rhymes with pig.
Well. It is pig.
But a different cut of pig than I’m used to using. As you know, I’m always very likely to have either a hunk of guanciale or pancetta (or both) in my fridge. I use these fatty cuts to add essential flavor not just where you’d expect them (carbonara, amatrciana, gricia) but also where you’d least expect them (here, here, here).
These days I have to admit that in general we are eating less and less meat. But I am by no means a vegetarian. And am especially fond of using just a bit of cured meat to give flavor and richness to otherwise meatless dishes. This is not my invention, but one of the fundamental tenants of cucina povera, or cooking on a budget, that is seen throughout Italian cuisine.
Last week I wrote about the fact that eating meat (specifically chicken) used to be considered to be a once a week (if that) special event. But during the rest of the week, and year, carefully cured bits and pieces of pork were often used to add not only flavor to seasonal vegetable based dishes, but much needed fat and protein as well.
My new favorite ingredient happened by chance a few weeks ago. Some guests who were staying in our apartment left me a few gifts from the Norcineria Viola. They knew my fondness for this small shop, and stopped by to pick up a parting gift for me. A few different kinds of sausage, a piece of guanciale and…a gambetto. If you don’t know what a gambetto is, don’t worry. I don’t think they did either. But it looked nice, and was even more attractive (I’m thinking) since it was a good price.
What is a gambetto? It is essentially part of a leg (gambo) of prosciutto. There are two ways of cutting prosciutto. You can either leave the bone in, and then cut slices off by hand. Or else (and this is the way it’s usually done in Roman alimentari) you can bone the prosciutto, stitch it back together, and then use the slicing machine to cut paper thin slices. This all goes well until you get to the very end of the leg, which is stubby and narrow, and so the slices start to get smaller and smaller. They still taste great, but most people will ask for the larger slices (from a new leg) since they look better.
So what to do with the leftover ‘bit of leg’? The gambetto? Sell it whole, in one chunk, at a much much cheaper price.
Which is how I ended up with a beautiful chunk of prosciutto that I’ve been using in just about everything.
Last week I made this deliciously easy bean soup. I had the very last bag of our own cranberry beans, dried, from last year, and after giving them an overnight soak, they were ready.
This soup is a two step process. First you have to cook the beans, and to do this it’s important to add flavor right from the start. So I added a cut up onion, garlic and a big handful of herbs from the garden(we were up in Umbria) to salted water. This meant that once the beans were tender, not only were they flavored with the seasonings, so was the cooking liquid, which became part of the final soup.
While the beans were busy cooking, I sauteed a big chopped leek with olive oil and then added about a half a cup my secret weapon: chopped prosciutto.
After removing the herbs from the bean pot, I added the sauteed leeks and prosciutto to the pot and cooked them together for another 45 minutes. Some of the beans kind of fell apart, others stayed whole and the soup thickened up and had the perfect porky, umami seasoning. Although I didn’t use a lot of prosciutto, the effect was large. Which is kind of the point of cucina povera. A little goes a long way.
I know that using a brodo cube or powdered broth is an easy way to add flavor to soups. But a bit of cut up gambetto? Much much better. Trust me on this one.
(FYI: don’t worry. Next week I’ll be writing about how to achieve the same heightened flavor in soup without any meat.)
- 2 cups dried cranberry beans
- 1 onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- one bunch herbs (sage, rosemary, parsley) tied together in a bunch
- 1 lark leek, white part only, diced
- 3 thick slices of prosciutto, diced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Soak the beans for at least 12 hours, or over night.
- Put the beans in a big pot, and cover with water by at least 3 inches.
- Peel and cut onion in half. Peel garlic. Add both to beans along with the salt and bunch of herbs.
- Bring the beans to a slow simmer and cook until tender. The amount of time will depend on how old the beans are. They should be very tender, and can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
- In the meantime cut three thick slices of prosciutto from your gambetto. The slices should be about a ¼ inch. If your gambetto still has the skin on it (and most do) but that off. Roughly dice the prosciutto.
- Pour olive oil into a medium sized frying pan. Heat over medium heat and add the leek. Cook until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add the prosciutto and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Once the beans are tender, add the contents of the frying pan to the beans. At this point there should be about an inch of liquid above the level of the beans. If you need to, add a cup or more of water. Stir, and simmer for about 45 minutes. Some of the beans will begin to fall apart and thicken the soup. Taste and adjust for seasoning. I’ve not added much salt, since the prosciutto adds a lot of saltiness.
- Serve topped with a swirl of your best olive oil.