CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Creative use of ham leftovers, like this hash, can feed you for a good part of the winter.
Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 29, 2015
When I prepare a country ham, I feel I’m carrying out a ritual that has more in common with ancient purity rites than with frilly aprons and parsley garnishes.
These hams are salt-cured, aged for months, and arrive — usually by mail — hard as a rock and covered with mold. The job of the cook is to clean, desalt and soften an object that looks about as delectable as beef jerky that’s been wedged for a year in the sofa cushions. This is the highest calling of the cook: to produce from an unlikely start a delicacy that has been part of the American larder for as long as there have been hogs on our farms.
While attending a college in Virginia, I acquired my first salt-cured country ham. In my experience, the best country hams are made there. I’ve had good results with hams from Edwards of Surry, Virginia (edwardsvaham.com) and Smithfield hams (smithfieldmarketplace.com).
The first time I made ham on my own, I had to ask my Kentucky-born father for instructions. Here is what he told me.
Virginia salt-cured country ham
1. The bath
After weighing the ham (you’ll need to know the weight to estimate the cooking time), remove all of the wrapping, which may include burlap bag, layers of paper and twine netting.
Use a stiff brush and cold water to wash the mold and any other detritus off the surface of the ham. Throw the brush away.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Step one in preparing a country ham is the ritual bath.
2. The soak
Place the ham in the pot you will cook it in and fill the pot with water. This pot must be large enough to hold the ham completely submerged in water. Let the ham soak in the cold water for 24 hours, changing the water every six or eight hours. The more frequently you change the water, the less salty the final product will be. This water is HAZMAT, so salty that if you pour it on the lawn, it could kill the grass.
3. The simmer
Put the ham (which will be much softer now) in the pot with fresh cold water. Add 10 bay leaves, two cups of cider vinegar and a handful of mustard seeds. Bring the water to a boil and then turn the heat down to maintain a slow simmer, with some bubbles every second or two. During the simmer, the water should always cover the meat; so top it off with fresh hot water as necessary.
Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature. Ideally the water should stay around 190 degrees for the duration of the cooking, which can be anywhere from 2 to 6 hours depending on the size of the ham. Allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound. The ham is ready when it slips easily off a large fork, or when the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees in the thickest part of the ham.
4. The flaying
Remove the ham from the cooking water and allow it to cool enough so you can handle it easily. Remove the tough layer of skin from the ham, peeling it away where possible, and using a sharp knife to free the skin when it won’t peel off. Leave a thin layer of fat on the ham as you remove the skin.
5. The glazing
Score the fat into squares, by making a series of shallow, parallel cuts in the same direction, and then a second set of cuts perpendicular to the first set. Rub the entire ham with brown sugar and press a whole clove into the center of each square. Cook the ham in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes until the glaze is browned and the fragrance of ham is causing passing cars to pull over in front of your house.
6. The carving
Country ham must be cut very thin. Allow the ham to cool completely before carving and use a very sharp knife. Start by carving a V into the meat, close to the thick end, and then make thin slices from there.
7. The eating
If you are having a party or feeding farmhands, serve thin slices of ham stuffed into biscuits. Or, you can serve slices with cornbread and a side of red-eye gravy (made with drippings from the roasting pan and coffee).
The afterlife of your ham is long. Kept refrigerated, you can take a week to eat the rest of the meat and even freeze the bone for a batch of soup a month from now.