Saltimbocca. Translated from the Italian, it means "jumps in the mouth." I've long wondered why this Roman dish, of all Italian dishes, got that name. I can think of plenty of other Italian foods I'd sooner have leap from the plate into my expectant maw. A bowl of spaghetti ai ricci di mare, for instance, the noodles coated in a silky sea urchin sauce. Or a ball of burrata, freshly made and just sliced, its creamy center oozing out. Or, you know, meatballs.
I don't mean to disparage saltimbocca. What's not to like about sautéed veal cutlets, layered with prosciutto and fresh sage leaves, and bathed in a buttery, lemony sauce? But made poorly, as it sometimes is, the veal is tough, the prosciutto is too salty and crisp, and the sauce is greasy (or, even worse, watery). When prepared well, though, it can reach heights deserving of its moniker.
At its heart, it's relatively quick and easy to prepare. Getting a few key details right will definitely make it a dish you'll want to launch into your mouth.
The primary decision with saltimbocca is how to assemble it. I tried all the configurations I could think of, laid out flat and rolled up every which way. In the end, I decided that my preference is for the cutlets to be laid out flat with the sage and prosciutto layered on top.
I like this method for a few reasons. First off, the veal cooks through very quickly. Second, it's easy to judge when the cutlets are just cooked through, which can be more of a guessing game when they're rolled up (because such rolls are small, it's difficult to get a reliable reading on their internal temperature). Third, the flat construction guarantees that each bite delivers the most balanced combination of veal, sage, and prosciutto. Plus, its extra surface area means you get a better sear on more of the meat, which translates to better flavor overall.
The main downside to cooking the cutlets flat is that you're unlikely to fit four servings in a pan at once, forcing you to work in batches. Rolls, on the other hand, take up much less space and can be cooked in just one shot, a small but arguably worthwhile convenience (although even then, a single batch of rolls takes about as long as two batches of flat cutlets, due to their differences in thickness).
If you do get their doneness right, the rolls can be more tender and juicy throughout, since the interior of the meat roll is shielded from the intensity of direct heat. There's always going to be a trade-off here—you either get more of a sear on the veal, which delivers better flavor but also slightly more toughness, or less of a sear, which produces more tender veal that's also less flavorful. I'll take the flavor gain over a small decrease in tenderness any day, so it's an easy choice for me, but you may prefer the roll-style saltimbocca.
If you do roll your saltimbocca up, my recommendation is to roll the veal with one sage leaf wound up inside it, then put a second leaf on the exterior of the roll and wrap it all up in a slice of prosciutto; this helps add flavor to the center of the roll, which can otherwise be slightly bland. I prefer the flavor of these rolls to ones where the prosciutto and sage are wound up with the veal jelly-roll style—all that prosciutto and sage inside the roll ends up steamy and damp... no thanks.
No matter how you decide to assemble your saltimbocca, you'll want to pound the veal cutlets first. This tenderizes the meat and creates an even thickness that guarantees even cooking.
Next, you want to lightly salt the veal, keeping in mind that the prosciutto itself will help season the meat later on. For that reason, I sprinkle a little on just one side, leaving the prosciutto-facing side unsalted.
For the sage, try to choose the largest leaves you can from your bunch. If they're big enough, a single leaf can suffice for each cutlet, but if not, you may want two or three. I've noticed a significant variation in the intensity of sage's flavor from one bunch to the next, so that's something to consider as well: If your sage doesn't have a strong smell, you way want to add a little more, whereas if it has a pungent woodsy aroma, you may want to hold back slightly by using a smaller leaf in proportion to the cutlets.
Finally, lay the prosciutto on top and secure it with a couple toothpicks. I like using the prosciutto as the top layer since it helps hold the sage leaves in place, though you could flip it and put the sage on the outside.
Most recipes have you dredge the cutlets lightly in flour, which helps enhance browning and also acts as a subtle thickener and emulsifier in the pan sauce you'll make after cooking the cutlets. I decided to try cornstarch as well, and found that I liked it more in this recipe—it creates a silkier pan sauce that works well with the tender veal and prosciutto. The differences are subtle, though, so if you only have flour, it's perfectly fine to use it.
When I arrange saltimbocca in flat layers, I only dredge the underside of the veal and not the prosciutto, since the prosciutto spends very little time pan-side down (I'll explain that below). When doing it roll-style, I dredge the entire roll lightly in the cornstarch, since all sides of the roll spend some time sizzling in the oil for even cooking.
If you've ever eaten cooked prosciutto, you'll know that it can sometimes lose its appeal. The direct heat of sautéing can cause it to firm up and dry out, which risks making the prosciutto tough and unpleasantly salty as its flavor concentrates with the loss of moisture. As a consequence, some saltimbocca recipes have you sear the flat veal cutlets on the bottom side only, allowing the heat to drift up from below until the last traces of pink on top are gone, while leaving the prosciutto untouched.
I get the motivation behind this approach, but the effect ultimately doesn't work for me—the layers of veal, sage, and cured pork never really transcend their individual states when the prosciutto remains unchanged by heat. Instead of unifying the three components into something new, you instead end up with a cooked veal cutlet topped with some tepid sage and prosciutto. Why bother at all?
So if we don't want to frizzle the prosciutto to the point of it being overly dehydrated and salty, but we also don't want to leave it in its raw cured state, what's the solution? For me, it's simply a matter of giving the prosciutto a quick kiss of heat and absolutely nothing more, which I do by rapidly flipping each of the cutlets prosciutto-side down and then immediately flipping them back.
It's just enough time to send some heat into the prosciutto and sage, releasing their flavor. The sage grows more fragrant and the prosciutto takes on just enough salty attitude to actually do something beyond lazily reclining atop the cutlets.
The Pan Sauce
Once the cutlets are cooked, I transfer them to a platter and quickly make the pan sauce. First, I melt butter in the skillet and toss in a couple sprigs of fresh sage, to infuse the sage flavor more fully into the sauce. Then I pour in dry white wine, stirring and scraping the bottom of the skillet to lift up any browned bits that are stuck to it—they help flavor the sauce.
The wine should come to a boil and reduce fairly quickly. Your goal is to get it to the point where the sauce is no longer thin and watery, but instead emulsified and silky, thick enough to leave a trail on the bottom of the skillet when you drag a spoon across. This is a delicate balancing act: Right when the sauce reaches its perfect consistency, it's also mere seconds away from over-reducing and breaking into an oily pool. Don't panic if this happens; simply whisk in a tablespoon or two of water and the sauce should come back together.
Right when the sauce hits that perfect consistency, I add some fresh lemon juice, to taste. The sauce should have the perfect balance of buttery richness and acidic brightness.
As a final (optional) step, I whisk in a splash of soy sauce, which gives the sauce an extra dimension of depth and complexity. It's obviously not traditional, but I think it's a significant improvement. Of the various soy sauce options, my preference here is Japanese usukuchi (light) soy sauce, which has a saltier but less malty flavor; it blends into the final sauce the best, though regular dark soy sauce is also pretty subtle in such a small quantity.
All that's left is to pour the sauce all over the cutlets and serve. Made this way, the saltimbocca is rich and flavorful, with just enough of a salty, tangy kick that you'll want it to not just jump into your mouth, but to launch itself there on the back of a booster rocket. But, please, remember to remove those toothpicks first.