When Easter ham comes naturally

I never met a ham I didn't like. That is, after I became a pig farmer. It's an avocation I never aspired to, but which I now look back on with delight.

For almost two years, I rented a tiny cabin on a fourth-generation family farm, where Belted Galloway cows grazed, horses roamed, and killdeer shrilly protected their field nests from both.

Hog tending was a way to participate in life on that farm and connect with my town's agricultural roots. After a long day at the office and a spell in traffic, I'd replace my silks and heels with jeans and rubber boots, and head out for feeding time. The pigs' antics - rolling in mud, circling their house, and chasing their own curly little tails - provided endless entertainment.

Well, almost endless.

Conflicted as I felt about sending the pigs off to meet their demise, I must admit that it wasn't too arduous a task to appreciate the rewards of the labor.

My stint with pig farming yielded some highly memorable meals. Bacon and sausage were devoured with gusto, but holiday hams were the biggest hit. On Christmas Eve or Easter, guests (those who dared to ask) might wince before taking that first bite. But then the carnivore in them would take over, and they'd not only clean their plates, they'd leap up for seconds and thirds.

Sure, the sweet cider and orange-marmalade glaze complemented the savory meat nicely, but I'm convinced it was the organic, nitrate-free quality that put those holiday hams over the top. Commercial brands, which are heavily processed, can't even come close to tasting as good.

Now that I've moved off the farm and given up pig farming, I still seek out all-natural hams. They're not as difficult to find as one might think. Consumers are becoming increasingly choosy about quality in all foods, but particularly meats. Many whole-food or gourmet-food stores sell natural hams. If you strike out, there's always mail order. But with Easter just a few days away, you may want to save the list (below) of mail-order sources for next year.

Of course, when you get the ham home, you'll need to choose a recipe. As a rule, the fresher and more natural the ingredients, the less one needs to fuss.

But whether you prepare a country ham (dry-cured with salt) or city ham (brined in salt or wet-cured), a whole ham for a crowd, or ham steaks just for the two of you, you'll still want to give it that festive-occasion flourish.

Here are a couple of the best recipes for holiday hams that I've found. Serve them to guests, and you'll get all the raves I did - without the wincing.

Mail-order sources

Father's Country Hams P.O. Box 99, Bremen, KY 42325 877-525-4267 (toll-free) www.fatherscountryhams.com

G. and W. Hamery Country Hams 411 West Lytle Street Murfreesboro, TN 37130 (615) 893-9712

Meacham Country Hams, 705 O'Nan Dyer Road, Sturgis, KY 42459, 800-552-3190 www.meachamhams.com

S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, P.O. Box 25, Surry, VA 23883, 800-222-4267, www.virginiatraditions.com

Harrington's of Vermont 802-434-4444 www.harringtonham.com

V.W. Joyner & Co., 315 Main Street, Smithfield, VA 23431 800-628-2242 www.smithfieldcollection.com

Grilled Ham Steak With Peppered Peach Glaze

This recipe can be prepared in 45 minutes or less. This Southern-style main course is especially good with steamed green beans, some old-fashioned potato salad, sliced tomatoes, and buttermilk biscuits. End with lemon sherbet and sugar cookies.

1/4 cup peach preserves

1 tablespoon minced, peeled fresh ginger

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons coarse-grained Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon grated lime peel

1 8-to 10-ounce boneless ham steak (about 1/2 inch thick)

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

Prepare barbecue grill (medium-high heat). Combine preserves, ginger, lime juice, mustard, and lime peel in small, heavy saucepan. Stir over low heat until preserves melt. Sprinkle both sides of ham with pepper; press lightly so that pepper adheres. Brush ham with some of peach glaze.

Grill ham until heated through, with the outside lightly browned and beginning to crisp at edges, brushing occasionally with more glaze, about 3 minutes per side. Cut ham in half. Transfer to plates.

Brush with any remaining glaze and serve.

Serves 2; can be doubled.

From Epicurious.com

Baked Country Ham

'Plan to soak the ham from one morning to the next, then boil it, and let it cool in its liquid before skinning, glazing, and baking. This is a lot of work, but you'll be rewarded with the best cooked ham you've ever had.'

1 (12- to 15-pound) Virginia or other country ham

6 cups assorted chopped aromatic vegetables and herbs or scraps - onions, parsnips, celery, parsley, for example

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

Several allspice berries

2 tablespoons cider or other vinegar

4 cloves, plus additional cloves for scoring ham (optional)

1 cup orange marmalade, or apricot or peach preserves

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

2 cups or more apple cider

If the ham is too big to fit in your biggest pot, saw off the shank. Any saw will do; just be patient. (Use the shank in soup; it will be wonderful.) Scrub the ham with a brush under running water, then soak it in cold water to cover for 24 hours, changing the water once or twice. Put ham, vegetables, peppercorns, allspice, vinegar, and 4 cloves in the pot and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 2 hours. Cool in its liquid for at least another 2 hours.

Drain the ham, discarding the cooking liquid. Skin the ham, then score the fatty layer in a diamond pattern. Insert a clove into each diamond if you like.

About 1 hour before you're ready to serve, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the ham on a rack in a roasting pan and, in a small saucepan, heat the marmalade or preserves over low heat until they thin slightly. Stir in 1 tablespoon or more of mustard. Spoon this mixture all over the ham and bake until the outer layer is crisp and brown, about 30 minutes. If you want pan juices with which to top the ham (not necessary - it will be fine with no more than good mustard), add 1/2 cup of cider to the bottom of the pan at the beginning of roasting and whenever it threatens to become dry.

Remove ham to a platter. To make pan juices, place the roasting pan on one or two burners over high heat. Add 1 cup of liquid to that already in the pan and cook, stirring and scraping, until liquid has been reduced by about half and has thickened slightly. Carve ham and serve with pan juices, mustard, or both.

For baked, wet-cured ham: Allow about 10 minutes per pound cooking time. Skip steps 1 and 2. Score and stud the ham with cloves as with the country ham (above). Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and proceed as above. Makes 15 or more servings.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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