19 July 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Njeguški Fruit Salad

The roadside stalls changed dramatically as we reached sea-level again, driving down the mountain from Njeguši.  The men and women selling Njeguški cheese and smoked ham hocks were replaced by ones sitting beside and almost eclipsed by huge piles of watermelons and cantaloupes. This gave us an idea.  In Montenegro, anything termed "Njeguški" on a menu is either draped, stuffed or smothered with the village's famous sir and pršut.  We knew we wanted to make [blank] Njeguški with the ham and cheese just procured in the village, but we didn't know what.  Until those sweet orbs met us back on the coast.
Pršut and sir have a happy marriage in this country.  Rarely does the first make an appearance without the second on its arm.  They seem like an odd pairing, from different animals, one smelling of smoke and the other delicately aged.  Finding the perfect third element to Njeguški-ize, seemed a little tricky.  Seeing those cantaloupes on the roadside reminded us that in Italy, America and the world over, the favored bedfellow of prosciutto is melon.  Cheese and melon seemed like they may clash, but we were willing to see how the three all got along.
To bridge the cantaloupe-cheese gap, we added in some red onion, fresh parsley and hulled sunflower seeds.  All three of those ingredients are extremely popular in Montenegro and around.  Our sunflower seeds were roasted with salt, which allowed us to skip salting the salad itself.  Between them, the pršut and the cheese, there was plenty of tasty sodium to go around.  The melon acted as a wonderful accompaniment to each version of saltiness, rounding them out while holding its flavorful own in the mix.
To further incorporate all the ingredients, we dressed the mix of squared melon pieces, leafed parsley, strips of pršut and cubed cheese with apple cider vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil.  We did this before adding the sunflower seeds so that they would stick instead of just falling through the cracks to the bottom of the bowl.  Since it was a little tricky to get all ingredients in/on one forkful, we were able to see just how different combinations within the recipe worked.  Melon and cheese - particularly this aged, hard, dryer cheese - do go well together, especially with the onion and parsley mixed in.  Any bite with red onion was better and any with pršut was the best.  The smokiness and marbled fat worked with every other flavor involved.  Luckily, cut super thin and ripped into short strips, it was well incorporated throughout the whole salad.
Being as we're already bridging the savory/sweet salad gap, we feel confident saying that this Njeguški fruit salad can also feature in a meal as a side dish, not just an appetizer or dessert.  It would make a heavenly garnish to a main of grilled shrimp.  We can definitely see it working wonderfully aside eggs at a brunch.  Basically, anything that goes well with prosciutto, cheese or melon goes even better with prosciutto, cheese and melon.  It is much too hot to think of melting cheese or stuffing any meat with some more meat (as is the case with Njeguški ražanj - spit roasted meat stuffed with pršut and sir).  So, finding a refreshing way to use these two fine ingredients, purchased from the village itself, was wonderful.  It's also, quite simply, a great alternative to the standard sliced prosciutto and melon on a plate.
Njeguški Fruit Salad

Ingredients:
All quantities depend on how much you want to make. As a rough guide, we'd say equal parts prosciutto and cheese, equal parts sunflower seeds, red onion, parsley. A good melon base and the oil and vinegar to taste.
- cantaloupe
- Njeguški pršut  (or any thin-sliced smoked ham like Italian prosciutto or  Spanish jambon)
- Njeguški sir (or any hard, but cube-able, dryer cheese like an aged cheddar or asiago)
- red onion, diced
- fresh curly parsley, leafed
- sunflower seeds, hulled, preferably dry-roasted & salted
- olive oil
- apple cider vinegar


Method
- Choose your melon carefully by whatever method your parents (or some tv chef) taught you.  Fragrant is good.  Cube into fairly large pieces, about the size of ice cubes.
- Cut your ham into strips.  If kitchen shears aren't available, as they weren't for us, pull apart along the lines of fat.  This works just as well and hands are a little easier to clean than kitchen shears.
- Place your cut up melon into a large mixing bowl and add in your cubed cheese, strips of pršut, diced red onion and parsley.  Always good to work biggest ingredients to smallest when making a salad.  That way, you can really gauge your proportions.
- Coat with apple cider vinegar and drizzle with olive oil.  Mix with your hands.
- Sprinkle sunflower seeds over the top and then mix again.  Add a few more seeds to the top before serving.
- Refrigerate if not serving immediately.
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