I do not come from ham-eating people. Bacon, of course. Pepperoni, sure. But the occasion for a roast ham did not arrive until last Christmas, when I volunteered to make the festive meal for friends — excellent cooks and ham lovers, all.
I roped in my mother, a veteran of beef Wellington and roast goose. I assured her there was nothing more to it than sticking the ham in a hot oven and glazing it with some happy combination of sugar, spice, fruit and liquor.
But when we wrestled it onto the counter, even the ham’s size seemed daunting.
“Which side is the top?” my mother asked.
I suspect we are not the first cooks to find a whole ham bewildering. What with air-drying and hickory-smoking, wet-curing and salt-rubbing, maple-glazing and honey-baking, it takes many steps to turn pork into ham. And within the ham family, there are innumerable combinations and variations from which to choose.
What most American cooks procure for Easter dinner is a wet-cured, lightly smoked, prebaked ham, what neighborhood butchers called a city ham (when there were still neighborhood butchers).
There is nothing particularly urban about city ham, the meat expert Bruce Aidells said, but the name took hold as shorthand. “It tells you what these are not, which is country ham,” he said.
An old tradition
Country hams are one of the oldest U.S. food traditions and are still produced by a few smokehouses, like Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennessee, and Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Kentucky. They undergo a long, slow, air-drying process, along the same lines as Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamon.
Country hams have become a cult item for food lovers, even as city hams have languished. Except for holidays, baked ham is now seen rarely on American tables at dinner, only occasionally at breakfast and almost never in restaurants, even as bacon has become as ubiquitous as butter.
“It’s a dying product,” said Tim Harris, who imports jamon and meat from acorn-fed pigs in Spain for his family’s food company in Williamsburg, Va., La Tienda.
This is partly because the salt and nitrates in commercial hams have become less appealing to consumers, even as the hams themselves have become less succulent.
It is boring to keep pointing out that most pigs today are bred to be lean, but it remains true. The hams that come from these pigs, although plump and pink, are no exception. (The pink color comes from nitrates used in curing.) The thigh is a working muscle, not very marbled with fat, and modern hams tend to be dry, not juicy.
To combat dryness and add flavor, producers inject hams with salt brine, along with other, less innocuous, liquids. The brine provides the characteristic quick cure, sweet flavor and long shelf life of city hams.
It may contain sugar, syrup or honey; sodium nitrite and nitrates; or “cure accelerators” like sodium ascorbate and preservatives like sodium erythorbate.
Depending on what is in the brine and how much of it is added, the Food and Drug Administration has developed intricate rules for labeling ham, some of them helpful in unearthing the ham you want for your holiday table.
Baked hams have a basic flavor profile of sweet, salt and smoke, but there are some regional variations, like maple syrup cures in the Northeast and smoking over hickory wood in the South.
Hams fall into two groups: those that my friend Melissa terms “child-friendly” hams, with a softness and mild sweetness; and those that my friend Jeff describes as “elevated,” with emphatic smoke and a robust, meaty texture.
I buy only hams that are on the bone (which ensures that the ham is a single joint, not a mash-up), are smoked over wood and contain minimal added liquid.
What about dryness?
There are at least two ways to combat the dryness of modern hams. One is with money; as of this month, you can buy an exquisitely juicy ham made from imported Iberico pork and smoked by the venerable Virginia firm S. Wallace Edwards & Sons. Available from La Tienda, a boneless ham weighing about 5 pounds costs $249.
Or you can combat dryness in the cooking pot, as my mother and I ultimately did. Baked hams are precooked, but most recipes call for baking them again for two to three hours. This seemed like a recipe for fatally dried-out meat.
In the absence of a family ham tradition, we followed our own tradition: We consulted Julia Child’s books. Her prescription seemed sensible: braise the ham in wine and water to finish the cooking, then roast it in a hot oven to crisp the surface.
The end result was glazed with mustard and brown sugar and crusted with golden bread crumbs. Having spent two hours underwater, the meat was tender, juicy and much less salty than the hams I have tasted on other people’s tables.
I’m a convert.
Options for your holiday meal
This recipe takes about 3 hours and makes 2 to 3 servings a pound.
1 cooked, bone-in “city ham,” whole or half, 8 to 12 lbs
3 TBS butter or vegetable oil
1 C sliced carrots
1 C sliced onions
Herb bundle of 12 parsley sprigs, 6 thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf, 12 peppercorns, 3 cloves, tied together in cheesecloth
1 bottle dry white wine
If there is tough skin covering the top of the ham, cut it off to expose the fat.
In a large, deep pot, heat butter or oil over medium-high heat. Add carrots and onions and saute until tender and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Place the ham on the vegetables, fatty side up. Add herb bundle, wine and 1 quart water and bring to a simmer.
Cook for 2 to 3 hours at a bare simmer; baste with ladle every 20 minutes. After 2 hours, test with meat thermometer: ham is ready when internal temperature reaches 135 degrees. Turn off the heat.
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Drain ham, reserving cooking liquid to use for stock (it freezes well). Place ham on a rack in a roasting pan, fatty side up, and score fat in a diamond pattern with tip of sharp knife. If using glaze, brush it on now.
Place ham in oven; roast 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. If using glaze, brush on more after first 10 minutes of cooking.
Remove from oven, tent with foil, and let rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
— Adapted from Julia Child
Consider these recipes for side dishes (especially if you’re hosting vegetarians), and for a fun, no-bake fruity dessert.
Mini Fruit Truffles
Makes about 48 small truffles
Here’s a no-bake dessert or snack that’s good throughout the Passover holiday.
California apricots are called for here because they tend to be less sweet than other varieties.
MAKE AHEAD: The truffles can be refrigerated or frozen between sheets of wax paper for several months; wait to dust them with the sugar until after they have defrosted or come to room temperature. Adapted from “Helen Nash’s New Kosher Cuisine: Healthy, Simple & Stylish” (Overlook, 2012).
4 ounces dried California apricots (see headnote)
4 ounces raw unsalted walnut halves or pieces
4 ounces pitted dates
4 ounces dried currants
2 tablespoons unsweetened apple juice
Sugar, preferably superfine, for dusting
Place the apricots in a food processor and pulse to coarsely chop. Add the nuts and pulse until they are coarsely chopped. Add the dates and pulse to chop, then add the currants and apple juice. Pulse until the mixture sticks to the blade and is well incorporated, like a coarse paste.
Roll a teaspoon of the mixture in your hand to form a ball; repeat to use all of the mixture. Just before serving, drop each ball into a bowl of sugar and toss lightly to coat.
NUTRITION Per piece: 35 calories, 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
This recipe was originally designed for a Passover Seder meal. It can be served as a vegetarian entree too, maybe with a watercress, orange and walnut salad. Serves 4 to 6.
11⁄2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled , cut into large chunks
About 3 C no-salt-added vegetable broth, or as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 TBS olive oil
4 lg (about 21⁄4 lbs total) onions, cut into very thin slices
13⁄4 lbs fresh mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and coarsely chopped
4 lg eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1⁄2 C finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (from about 15 stems)
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, then pour the broth over them to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for about 20 minutes or until just tender. Drain, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Return the potatoes to the pan. Add the reserved cooking liquid and mash well, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened but not colored. Transfer to a bowl, leaving some oil on the cooking surface.
Add the mushrooms to the Dutch oven or skillet (still over medium heat) and cook for about 15 minutes, until the moisture they release has evaporated. Add the onions back in, stirring to incorporate and warm through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a deep-sided, 3-quart baking dish at hand.
Transfer the onion-mushroom mixture to the baking dish.
Stir the egg yolks and parsley into the potatoes. Whisk or beat the egg whites to form stiff peaks, then fold them into the potato mixture. Transfer to the baking dish, carefully spreading the mixture over the onion-mushroom base. Bake for 1 hour or until golden brown.
Variation: Add a seeded, chopped jalapeno pepper to the onion-mushroom mixture for more heat, or add a layer of roasted eggplant and peppers over the onion-mushroom mixture for a more substantial dish.
— Adapted from “Jewish Traditional Cooking” by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round
Mango, Pineapple and Pomegranate Salad
This salad needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour, and up to 1 day, to meld the flavors. 6 servings.
1 lb peeled and cored fresh pineapple
1 lg ripe mango, peeled (about 14 oz)
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 C sugar
2⁄3 C passion fruit juice (from concentrate is OK)
1⁄3 to 1⁄2 C pomegranate seeds; if hard to find, try substituting chopped, dried sweetened cranberries
6 to 12 mint leaves, finely chopped
Cut the pineapple and mango into 1⁄2-inch cubes and place them in a mixing bowl or plastic zip-top bag.
Whisk together the sugar (to taste) and juice in a liquid measuring cup until the sugar has dissolved. Pour over the fruit and stir to coat. Add the pomegranate seeds and mint. Cover or seal, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to a day.
Stir before serving; if the salad has been refrigerated for a day, you may wish to add a bit more fresh mint.
— Adapted from “The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes” by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray with David Hagedorn
Asparagus With Shallot-Honey Dressing
This holiday side dish is gluten-, egg- and dairy-free. But it’s still delicious! The dressing has a creamy quality. Feel free to add grape tomatoes, pine nuts and/or chunks of ripe avocado for more texture and color. 6 to 8 servings.
2 lbs asparagus, preferably similar in thickness
1⁄4 C finely chopped shallot
Juice from 1 lemon (2 TBS)
1 TBS honey
2 cloves garlic
1⁄4 tsp fine sea salt, or more as needed
1⁄4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more
3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water and ice cubes.
Meanwhile, trim the woody ends of the asparagus. Peel some of the stalks, if desired. Cut the asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces.
Add the asparagus to the pot and cook/blanch for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is just tender and bright green. Use a Chinese skimmer or wide slotted spoon to transfer it to the ice-water bath to cool.
Combine the shallot, lemon juice, honey, garlic, sea salt and pepper in a mini-food processor. Pulse until well combined. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream to form an emulsified dressing.
Drain the asparagus; transfer it to paper towels to dry, then place in a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of the dressing and toss to coat evenly. Taste; adjust the seasoning or add dressing as needed.
Serve at room temperature.
— Adapted from a recipe by Elaine Gordon, a master certified health education specialist and creator of EatingbyElaine.com