January 02, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is a...

Country Ham! 

There is nothing better than a well prepared country ham and for all of you that said "I don't like it... It's too salty." you just don't know what you are missing.  To be fair it is saltier than a city ham, but it should not be a salt lick either.  Country ham is salt cured-- not to be confused with its sugar cured city cousin.  However, to compare some recently thawed, show leather substitute, that was prepared by a teenager that didn't want to be making your breakfast anyway to real country ham is rather unfair.  It's sort of like comparing that burger you had for lunch from the drive through window to one your momma might have made.  A good Country Ham is a treasure.  Slow methods and gentle heat coax sublime flavors from this proud piece of porcine pleasure.

I have been cooking whole country hams for Christmas since about 1989.  I have cooked them a number of different ways.  Baked is not really the right word as the process is more like a braise, but braise is a click too hot.  I did a method that involved cider vinegar, water, and soda pop for a few years--lost that recipe somewhere.  Then I tried a few methods from the web all very similar to the soda pop ham.  A few years ago I learned about the lard can method. Google it if you like there is plenty of info.  Basically it comes from the old way of cooking the hams in a lard can, wrapping the whole deal in blankets after it boils a bit and letting it sit over night slowly cooking the ham.  Not bad, but it was essentially ham boiled in water and I always look for ways to get a bit more flavor involved.  

So now I do this...

First, get a big country ham.  Something in the 15 to 18 pound range-- I cut the hock off, but it isn't a requirement.  And don't go buy one of the saline injected medieval weapons in a net bag at the typical grocery.  Try to find one that is at least 9 months old, a year is better, and that has been treated with some respect.

Give it a scrub, NO SOAP, to remove any unwanted crud from the outside, and then soak it for 24 hours in cold water.  If the salt is a real concern, go 48 hours.  I change the water every 6 to 8 hours as well to shed the salt that has been "soaked" out.  

Once you are ready to cook, drain the water one more time, rinse the ham, and start with a clean pan if you are using the same one.  Add a quartered onion, a quartered apple, a dozen or so black peppercorns, about a half dozen allspice berries, about a dozen and a half whole cloves, a bay leaf, a cup of apple cider, and a cup of bourbon to the pot.  Then fill the pot with water to cover the ham.

Bring the water almost to a boil and turn the heat down so that only an occasional bubble rises to the top.  Watch the pot because the heat will need to be turned down the longer it cooks.  The ham should cook until it reaches an internal temp of 160-165-- be sure the probe does not touch the bone.  It is usually done if the end has pulled back and the bones move freely.  This one weighed in around 16 pounds, it took about 5 1/2 hours to reach 163, and the small bone pulled out easily.

Drain it and let it cool for awhile.  We need to be able to handle it in the next step.  Country ham has a large fat layer and skin still on it.  You can use a knife to trim it away, but I use a plastic glove and run my fingers under the fat layer to take it off.  This way less meat is "trimmed" away.  It takes a little practice, but it is by no means hard to do.  And leave a little fat, I mean, the flavor is in the fat, isn't it. :)

Once the fat layer has been mostly removed I bring the oven to 450 and pour over the top a mixture of 1/2 C brown sugar, 1/2 C honey, and a big splash of bourbon. Put it back in the oven until the glaze is bubbly-- about 15 or 20 minutes.  It will need to rest a bit more before we carve.  20 or 30 minutes or longer if needed-- just long enough to make cornbread. :)

To carve it look at the ends and figure out which side the bone runs closest too.  It's pretty easy once you look at it for a minute.  It will be one of the 2 smaller curved sides.  Carve a slice or 2 off that "short" side and stand the ham on the flat spot.  Then, starting at the hock end, make thin angled slices.  We are looking for longer and thinner slices as we work back up the bone toward the big end.  Once that side is carved, the other produce more slices and some crusty pieces too.  I like to use these for breakfast slices the next morning or ham salad, and don't forget to leave some meat on the bone for butter bean soup-- that's another post in the very near future.  

1 ham will feed a bunch of people, make several meals, and some variety too.  It keeps in the fridge pretty well and can be frozen, but the best slices are the first ones that come off while it is still warm.  Moist and tender... sweetness from the glaze... salt from the cure... subtle fragrances from the aromatics... that wonderful slightly citrus and spicy yet sweet undertone from the bourbon... country ham in all its glory.  

Until you have tried it this way, why, saying you don't like it cuz its too salty, well, that's just wrong.  :)  

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