Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Country ham. As in USA. Sans apologies.
First of all, I am not apologizing for the carnage herein so let's get that idea right out of the way.
Secondly, those of you who are at the moment thinking: Pass on the Virginia ham, I will just order proscuitto from actual Italy: Shame!
Finally, this isn't health food. Not everything you do for country assists longevity. These causes are mutually exclusive, actually. But this is an American cut and cure and is then, in my estimation, better than every other other ham and it is our ham.
You can buy one, cost you about $35 and then keep it in the cupboard. Slice off it whenever you need a quick meal or snack. Seriously, right there in the pantry.
Now, a short tale: My Father would not have flank or skirt steak in the house. He considered them poor cuts and somehow associated having those things in the house with a place not being a decent household. Even after these steaks became popular and mainstream they were not served in his home. Country ham has a similar issue in some homes, it is associated with hard times and hard-scrabble people.
But, look, food is not to blame for hardship; Conditions, circumstances, and maybe some fate are wrapped up in that, too. But hell if any ham I ever met made you poor nor any truffle a tycoon. Food, in my estimation, is a thing to be experienced and managed at a fiscal level; hunting and gathering having largely been reduced to accounting and acquiring, sadly.
However, when I drive past McDonald's I often think to myself poor food. Maybe country ham is the McDonald's of a different time; I don't know about that. I only know I keep one around because I cook a great deal and aside from the snack asset, it does beautifully in lunch dishes and casseroles. In fact, I was served an amazing thinly sliced Virginia ham on a huge biscuit with house-made mustard at Market Salamander in Middleburg and was reminded why I would tolerate a ham soaking on my counter for three days. I am not going to hold the ham responsible for the rise and fall of ecomomies, that is six places removed from my table. But I might hold McD's there, my jury is still out.
Not having been brought up on country ham, a long commitment to the work of Edna Lewis taught me to appriciate Virginia cured ham. Admittedly, the idea of a ham that is kept in cool room air was at first curious and alarming, then I remembered the proscuitto.
Once you get your ham, it is going to take - roughly - half a week to get it in fighting shape so prepare yourself. You do not have to work at it, you just have to be okay with a ham hanging about in the kitchen, or whereever, for four days. But you will get through it and it will be worth the fight.
You might also want to do some stretching. Just to limber-up a bit? They are about 15 pounds or so and will need a huge pot and a good deal of room.
Then, when it is all through and the ham is cooked and the day is done, you will be in pork forever or at least a couple of months or have a buffet item for thirty. You can serve brunch, to an infantry unit or so. Which would be a nice thing to do with your new ham. Just saying, is all.
God bless America.
From Edna Lewis's In Pursuit of Flavor (Alfred A. Knopf, University of Virginia Press, 1998):
"No one who knows Virginia ham is surprised when it is served to them cold. The hams just fall apart if they are sliced warm, although sometimes I heat up a few slices in the oven.
"When you buy a Virginia ham be sure you get one that is not cooked. If you do get one that is already cooked, be sure you slice it very thin - but even so there is a good chance the texture will be like wood. After you cook the ham, you have to skin it and cut off some of the fat. You should leave a layer of fat so that when you slice it there is a nice looking rim of fat around the edge, as with proscuitto.
"After the ham is cooked, cooled, and as much as you need has been sliced off, wrap it well in parchment and foil (not plastic) and keep it in a cool room or if you have space, the refidgerator. When I was young, we used to keep the hams in a pie safe in the pantry. That way, we always had meat, already cooked, on hand for visitors or quick meals. I usually serve the ham with Mustard and Brown Sugar, which is sort of sweet and contrasts with the salty, dry meat... Virginia ham is delicious served in a biscuit, warm or cold. It will keep for months refridgerated, if it develops a little mold, just scrape it off."
Edna Lewis's recipes for cooking Virginia ham and related dishes and sauces appear at Blushing Hostess Cooks.