Itailan Prosciutto, All the Way from Iowa

There are three types of prosciutto on Danny Meyer's new Roman-style restaurant, Maialino. Two are from Italy. The last one is from Norwalk, Iowa.

Norwalk is the home of La Quercia, a salumificio devoted to making artisanal prosciutto from regional pork.

Herb Eckhouse co-owns La Quercia with his wife Kathy, a former ranch hand and agricultural economics researcher. In the mid-80s, they lived with their two daughters in rural Italy, where they learned the language, and a love for eating locally. At the time, proscuitto was not able to be imported legally into the U.S. Living in Italy, they saw that prosciutto wasn’t valued simply for culinary reasons. It also had an impact on the regional economy, providing steady work for locals.

“Coming back from to Iowa from Italy, you cannot help but be struck by the beauty and the bounty of the state,” he told WNYC’s Amy Eddings. “The thought came to us: what are we doing to show that we value this?”

Combining his love of Iowa with his commitment to eating well became the raison-d'etre for La Quercia.  “Can we make something that gets people to stop and say, ‘You know what? I’m happy to be alive,” he says. “That’s our way of honoring our patrimony in our state.”

Their process is simple. They use the hind leg of the hog, add salt, dry it and age the meat.

While they make some varieties -- a  prosciutto picante with fennel and California red chili – their focus is on high quality meat. “The magic secret is what happens inside the meat,” Eckhouse says. “The enzymes that naturally occur break the meat down, that’s what creates the silky textures, the volatile flavors and the aromas that are so special.”

Eckhouse won’t use pork that has been fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics. And, on the theory that happier pigs make tastier meat, La Quercia will only buy meat from hogs that have had a chance to socially congregate. Pigs, according to Eckhouse, are naturally playful creatures.

For those who want to experiment with making their own prosciutto, Eckhouse recommends Paul Bertolli’s book, Cooking by Hand, and Bruce Aidell’s The Complete Book of Pork.

Mark Bittman's Recipe for Prosciutto Rolls with Asparagus and Arugula

Time: 30 minutes   

  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 bunch arugula
  • 15 thin slices prosciutto (about 1/2 pound), each about eight inches long.

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook asparagus until tender, about three minutes depending on thickness. Drain asparagus and shock it in ice water to stop the cooking; pat dry and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest; season with salt and pepper. Add arugula and asparagus spears to bowl and toss gently to coat, being careful not to break asparagus.
3. On a large cutting board or work surface, arrange three slices of prosciutto vertically and slightly overlapping to form a rectangle, about 6 by 8 inches.
4. Lay an even combination of about a quarter of the dressed asparagus and arugula horizontally across prosciutto. Tightly roll up prosciutto, jelly-roll style; cut roll on the diagonal into bite-size pieces. Repeat this process to make and cut four more rolls.

Yield: At least 20 pieces.