My first job was at a deli counter in a small gourmet grocery called Brodeens. I made $3.35 an hour. We sold lots of stinky cheeses whose names I couldn't pronounce and cured meats of all shapes and sizes. I started the summer after I turned 14 and quit just before Thanksgiving. I couldn't bare the thought of handling whole, raw turkeys. Raw chickens were bad enough.
The affluent little suburb where this grocery was located (and where I grew up) was filled with desperate housewives. The owners of the store flirted with them endlessly and those of us in the deli had to fulfill all of their very specific requests. The worst was when someone ordered Prosciutto. "I'd like it sliced VERY thin," they'd demand. I'd roll my eyes and lug the large leg of ham over to the meat slicer. I had nightmares about that fucking meat slicer. It was terrifying. Slicing the Prosciutto thinly, AND evenly, was no easy task. I never mastered that task in my brief tenure at Brodeens.
I thought my parents were pretty worldly, especially when it came to food. They were European. At least they cooked. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s meant that most of my friends had two working parents, the microwave was a relatively new invention (and therefore a novelty that must be used AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE) and many people subsisted on frozen dinners and hamburger helper. Margarine, Velveeta and bologna were other household staples.
Although my parents cooked a lot and always grew their own veggies and fruit, their diet was limited to mostly Scandinavian food. Norwegian’s have their own version of Prosciutto, but my dad left it hanging in the garage with a knife stabbed into the flesh, ready whenever he – or any visitors – wanted a snack. There was blood sausage, liver pates, potato dumplings, and salted cod. The flavors leaned far into the mild category. I won’t say bland, because there was definitely a lot of flavor. There just wasn’t much spice. Let me just admit right here that the first time I had pizza – at about age 10 – I spit it out. It burned my tongue.
It didn’t help that I was a supremely picky eater. I loved fruit, sugar, dessert, and juice. We ate a lot of fish – a Scandinavian thing, but also a Northwest thing – and with the abundance of salmon in those days we had what you’d call an embarrassment of riches. There were many nights my brother and I would whine and complain, “Salmon…AGAIN?!” My mom cooked most things from scratch, even making homemade macaroni and cheese, even though what we really wanted was the stuff with the powdered cheese.
It wasn’t until I started traveling – on my own – that I got more adventurous with food and flavors. Visiting markets in Italy, France and Turkey opened up my palate to a lot more interesting flavors. I had an interest in cooking early on, especially baking (for the sugar, of course) and by my mid-20s I really wanted to challenge myself. If I ate a good meal in a restaurant, I wanted to try and recreate it at home. Returning from 6-8 week trips in Europe, I tried to recreate the food moments I experienced there.
On the spectrum of foo-fooo. Foood…Oh, I can’t say it. On the spectrum of food enthusiasts, I am pretty novice. I only buy Parmigiano Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, organic milk, and try to stick to produce in season. But, I still love me some junk food. You can take the girl out of the 80s but you can’t take the 80s out of the girl. I still devour the cheese dip my mom makes with Velveeta, have bought Tang in the last five years and can’t be trusted around a can of Pringles.
So having said all of that, I have come to a point in my life, that I when I shop for food – at a Farmers’ Market, mega market or deli – I know what I want. I am undyingly loyal to my favorite brands of olive oil, dried pasta and Dijon mustard. I scrutinize wedges of cheese for freshness and pepper butchers and fish mongers with questions. But when I go to the deli counter, I always pause and think hard about what I am going to do and say.
When I step up to place my order at the deli, the young man who is generally working behind the counter recognizes me instantly, and not in a good way. I usually stop by for some sliced ham or turkey, but every few months I buy some Prosciutto and I swear he sees me coming and thinks, good Christ she’s gonna demand some thinly-sliced Prosciutto again. And you know what? He’s right.
The thing is…I now understand and appreciate the mouth-watering appeal of fresh, thinly sliced Prosciutto. The pre-sliced stuff just doesn’t compare. And, if the Prosciutto is sliced too thick or too uneven, it just isn’t the same. If you are cooking with it, you can fudge it a little bit, but for wrapping around fruit, vegetables or breadsticks…thin is the only way to go. And really, for $27 a pound I can be a little demanding can’t I?
I have had this recipe floating around my kitchen for at least a year. My friends in Copenhagen sent it to me, knowing I would love it. They were right. Eggs are obviously a staple we have in abundance. Red-ripe tomatoes (grown by my parents) have been lining my windowsill for weeks. And Prosciutto, well all I need to do is visit my favorite deli man. I’m sure he’s missed me.
Parma Bowls with Egg and Tomato
2 big slices Prosciutto di Parma (thinly-sliced, natch)
2 Tbsp diced tomato
2 Tbsp fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease 2 cups in a muffin tin. Line the cups with one slice of Prosciutto each, forming it into a tight little cup. Sprinkle Prosciutto with chopped tomato. Crack an egg into each cup.
Bake for 10 minutes. Pull out the tray and sprinkle with the cheese (optional). Bake another 3-6 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking.
Gently remove the Parma bowls onto plates and sprinkle with basil.
I think the general concept of this dish could be adapted with other ingredients. A sliced meat with plenty of fat is key for making a nice crispy crusted bowl, but ham may work. If tomatoes are out of season, caramelized onions or roasted red peppers would work great. Thyme or tarragon sprinkled on top would work well too. And for the optional cheese, you can’t go wrong with Velveeta…