Well, Charlotte couldn’t save this one, lucky for us. (And “terrific” doesn’t even begin to describe its hind leg, much less the entire animal…)
Many a pork product has moved me to tears of joy. Bacon often does, though there’s a new porcine tear-jerker on the block (pun intended). Shut your mouth? Hey! I’m just talkin’ about country ham!
Yes, country ham. No, not city ham. City ham is the user-frendly, juicy and tender (read: milk toast) ham product for people who think they like ham.
City ham is a half-hearted leap into 4 feet of water (usually during the holidays) while wearing a wet suit and orange floaties. Country ham is a screaming, head-first plunge from a 25-foot-tall diving platform into an Olympic pool (on a random Tuesday) while wearing only your birthday suit.
Country ham goes well beyond its European brethren. Prosciutto, Presunto, Jamon and Jambon typically spend about 2 weeks in salt and then dry age from 6 months to 4 years. The pigs’ diets are often regulated, and the final product reflects the delicate sweetness and other qualities attributable to the acorns and herbs the pigs may consume. It’s nuanced and complex like a fancy red wine.
Country ham, on the other hoof, spends 4 to 12 weeks in salt before moving on to the smoker, and then dry ages from 6 months to 3 years. The “American” pigs eat whatever they want—usually twinkies, cheeseburgers and small, unruly children. (Okay, I made up that last one.) Country ham is like a good Bourbon—with depth, bite and burn.
Country ham is old school meat. Refrigeration wasn’t in domestic use until about 1910. Salt curing meat dates back thousands of years. Also, the saltiness gives country ham a southern American character defined by a decadent and delicious excess. Twelve weeks in salt? Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right?
Well, even 4 weeks in salt adds a lot of salt. So, a ham soak is in order. Three days is good. And change the water twice a day. Whenever you change the water, rub the ham under running cold water to remove a little of the moldy shmegma, but don’t get all worked up over it. You want to keep a little of the lightly gamey, blue-cheese undertones afforded by the aging process.
After the soak, while the leg is moist, use a sharp paring or utility knife to remove the “rind,” while leaving most of the fat. “Peel” the rind while making careful slashes to sever the skin from the subcutaneous fat.
Make a paste of brown sugar and orange juice and rub down the ham. Set it, fatty side up, in a roasting pan with 2 or 3 cups of apple juice or cola (or both) and place it, uncovered, into a 325-degree oven. After about an hour, turn the heat down to 225 and give it about another hour. Keep an occasional eye on it—you’ll recognize when it gets tasty.
This baking will firm up the grey, flabby-looking leg after its 3-day soak.
Yes, we did skip the all-too-common pork poach. Poaching ruins country ham. If you want the juicy holiday ham, buy a city ham, decorate it with cloves and pineapple slices, bake it all day while you listen to Justin Bieber and drink wine coolers, then slice the ham thick and plop it on your plate. Most people do.
“But country hams aren’t cooked,” you say. “I have to poach it.”
Look, with hams salted for 4 weeks and aged 6 months or more, there’s so much salt penetration and dehydration that no bad guys can live on (or in) the meat. However, it’s a touch too salty to eat without a soak, and its anemic and flaccid post-soak appearance is unappealing.
Are there some country hams that can be comfortably eaten raw? Absolutely, but you’ll have to shop around and sample them to find what fits your taste. The standard issue country ham will benefit from the above described soak and bake.
I like salami and jerky. So, I like a firm, lightly fatty and slightly salty country ham and so should you. Besides, a thin slice of it will stand up to anything you can think to put on or near your plate…like a giant cinnamon bun with orange icing and a steaming hot cup of French press coffee.
Even vegetarians should add eating (real) country ham to their bucket lists. I think you can still be a vegetarian even if you eat other vegetarians.
Author’s note: An animal was clearly injured in the making of my country ham. Granted, it can probably still get around just fine on three legs. Also: this blog took much longer to write than my other blogs because I kept taking “thin-sliced country ham breaks” while dancing to the tracks of Era Vulgaris by Queens of the Stone Age.