by Kate Heyhoe
Eternity is two people and a ham... or so it's been said.
I'm not a huge fan of ham but every year I get suckered into buying one—usually a fully cooked ten-pounder that's meant to feed a small army for weeks, but is destined to serve only me and my husband...for decades. A few times I've tried salvaging a block or so of leftover ham by freezing it, only to unearth the poor frostburned clump years later. The most recent chunk I found was carbon dated from the middle of the last millennium, and most certainly inedible. Even the cats wouldn't eat it, but then again they won't eat fresh ham either.
Like Elvis in Vegas, hams headline the market specials—at ridiculously cheap prices, especially at Easter. Baked ham is mostly an American Easter tradition, because in Europe and other Christian places, lamb is the preferred main course. (Europeans also cure their most of their hams differently, creating such luscious but salty delicacies as Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamon serrano.) According to the National Pork Producers Council, the American ham tradition probably hails from the fact that hog killing was usually done in the fall, when cooler weather rolls in. The hams were then cured and hung to smoke and age over the winter, and the first festive or holiday time for enjoying last fall's hams was Easter.
Slabs of ham or ham steaks can be rather intense as entrées go. I can make a meal of sliced ham once, but after that I'm ready for something different. Not like leftover turkey at Thanksgiving, which we usually just hack off the bone and eat out of hand, with a little salt, standing over the sink. Two days and the turkey is done, but such is never the case with ham.
So what does one do with a leftover ham after the buffet is through, when the foil-wrapped beast solidly dominates your refrigerator like Jabba the Hut? Freezing is an option—if you flag your calendar with a use-by date. Or, you can immerse yourself in "ham-overs"—endless meals of ham-and-potatoes, ham-and-beans, ham-and-cheese, ham and...
Ham works well as a seasoning because of its intense salty, smoky, cured flavor—especially if you've got a Southern-style country ham. But if you only add a bit of diced ham here and there to soups, salads, and stir-fries, you're merely delaying the full demise of the beast. Better to put it out of its misery in a few ham-hearty dishes—ones with flavors that support the ham as headliner but are substantial enough to keep the star from hogging the stage. You should also pay careful attention to the side dishes that accompany a ham, as their flavors and textures can balance the ham and at the same time, rev up the meal.
Ham and Corn Symbiosis: Ham and corn have a particular affinity, whether it's fresh corn or corn products like tortillas, cornmeal, polenta, or hominy. Posole, a Mexican stew of hominy, pork and chiles, becomes a fiesta when enlivened with rustic shreds of ham. Or, try red beans and rice with large meaty ham chunks and sweet cornbread biscuits. The sweetness of the biscuits contrasts the saltiness of the ham, and the ham's saltiness perks up the beans, which normally need a good deal of salt anyway. Watch as those chunks of ham, piled onto and into the biscuits, disappear into your diners' mouths. Four persons can knock out a good pound-and-a-half or more of cooked ham in one meal. For a flavor punch, a dash of vinegary pepper sauce adds a contrasting kick.
Morning Hog Call: Southerners know that ham's not just for dinner. Breakfasts of fried ham with grits (another corn specialty), ham and potato hash, and ham with country gravy dot the menus of Interstate diners from Waxahatchie to Wilmington. For a more urban way to start the day, consider pain perdu or French toast sandwiches, stuffed with thick ham slices and berry preserves or cream cheese, dipped in beaten egg and fried to a crisp crust, then drizzled with real maple syrup. Now, this is ham that jams!
Jambon, Mon Ami: Alsace Lorraine, France's region that borders Germany, has a love affair with pigs. In fact, they go whole hog. Pork rind, ham hocks, sausages, ham bones, pigs feet and other cuts adorn their regional specialties, sometimes separately but usually together in the same dish. Cassoulet, for instance, combines all sorts of pig cuts with white beans, garlic and duck fat, baked low and slow until a crisp, mouth-watering crust forms on top. You don't have to add all the cuts of pork called for when making cassoulet. For an American version, just a large amount of ham and a ham bone will do (although expect thunderous epithets from any true Frenchman). Ditto for Choucroute Garni, a dish of sauerkraut simmered with smoked, cured and fresh pork. The variety of meats adds to the deep flavors, but even ham alone makes for a hearty, flavorful dish. I put a spin on traditional cassoulet by creating Cassoulet Croquettes, an easy ham-over recipe that works as either appetizer or main dish.
Finally, note that the hams I refer to in my recipes are the fully-cooked, "ready-to-eat" American hams—the ones that appear by the truckload at holidays. Most of these hams are cheap because they've had water added. Consequently, these hams will release water during cooking, so you may want to fry or microwave the ham until most of the liquid is released to prevent a dish from becoming runny or soggy. Also, thawed chunks of previously frozen ham have a slightly funky texture due to the water expanding as ice and then melting back to water again. But in dishes like soups, beans and stews, or in ground ham recipes, no one will notice.
To see if there's water added, check the label. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the following labels indicate:
HAM—the product is at least 20.5 percent protein in lean portion and contains no added water.
HAM with NATURAL JUICES—the product is at least 18.5 percent protein. Can weigh 8 percent more than uncured weight. Example: canned hams.
HAM—WATER ADDED—the product is at least 17 percent protein with 10 percent added solution; it can weigh 8 percent more after curing than uncured.
HAM AND WATER PRODUCTS—Product may contain any amount of water but label must indicate percent of "added ingredients." For example, "X percent of weight is added ingredients" for any canned ham with less than 17 percent protein.
Now that you're armed with USDA labeling knowledge and inspired by ham-over ideas, it's time to pig out. recipes below likely won't use up all the leftover ham in your fridge, but perhaps they'll make a dent in the beast, and simultaneously add some refreshing new additions to your "ham and..." repertoire.
Kate's Global Kitchen for April, 2001:
04/07/01 Wild Sex, Death, and Guilt-free Dining
04/14/01 Cures for the Spring Ham-Over
04/21/01 Dining with Joe...Cooking with Coffee
04/28/00 Little Korean Dishes
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created April 2001
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