by Kate Heyhoe
As a kid, I recall eating ham once a year—at Easter. Mom didn't serve lamb, beef or poultry then, nor did we eat ham at any other time of year.
In many families, hams are to Easter what turkeys are to Thanksgiving: a once-a-year holiday tradition. Actually, the customary Easter ham is believed to have its roots in the cold countries of northern and central Europe. In Hungary and neighboring countries, the last hams and pork roasts of winter storage were served as a celebration of both the spring's new bounty and the Easter feast, the first major holiday after Christmas. Southern Europeans in Greece and Mediterranean countries, where lambs are far more plentiful than pigs, serve lamb instead, and Easter conveniently falls when the first spring lambs are ready for the spit.For Europeans observing Lent, a feast of ham or lamb was a grand meal, especially following weeks of dining without meat. In the United States, the colonists continued the ham tradition, as most farmers raised hogs over sheep.
Today, the Southern ham is typically a "country ham," meaning it has been air-cured, smoked and aged in a meticulous, time-consuming process. This produces rich flavor but also a saltier and drier meat, as exemplified by the famous Virginia Smithfield hams. Some people soak these hams to remove some of the saltiness, while others prefer to serve them at full flavor, thinly sliced and in small portions.
Most grocery-store hams, particularly those on sale at Easter, are wet-cured, meaning they've been seasoned with brine and, like country hams, are fully cooked and ready to eat. But these hams profit greatly by reheating or baking, and by adding extra flavoring in the form of a glaze.
The heating process also helps leech out some of the liquid that permeates the ham, whether it's a "water-added" ham or one that contains only "natural juices added" (read the label to find out). If the label merely says "ham," the lean portions must contain more than 20 percent protein and no added water, making it pound per pound a better protein buy. But hams with added water or natural juices can still be tasty and depending on the holiday grocery-store wars, can be even more affordable, when such hams appear at unbelievably low prices.
A particular convenience today are spiral-sliced hams. You no longer need to wrestle with carving. Just use a thin knife to cut around the bone and the slices will fall right off.
Baking and Glazing Tips
* Check the label to see if the ham is ready-to-eat or needs to be cooked before eating. Follow the manufacturer's instructions, or bake according to the method below. (Some fully cooked hams say to reheat at 225 degrees F. for 2 to 3 hours.)
* Reheat a fully cooked ham in a 325 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes per pound, until it reaches 140 degrees inside. For an uncooked ham, heat it to 160 degrees internally. Most hams weigh between 10 and 15 pounds.
* Prepare the glaze while the ham bakes. Add the glaze at the end of cooking, in the last 30 to 45 minutes to keep it from burning.
* Ham glazes are easy to concoct, and no real recipe is needed. The best ones combine a sweetener, such as brown sugar, honey, maple syrup or marmalade, with ingredients that add a flavor kick: mustard, citrus and tart fruit, ginger, chiles, or fresh herbs, for instance.
* Trim excess fat to about 1/4 inch thickness before baking. Score a diamond or crosshatch pattern in the fat to produce an attractive and tasty crispy crust.
* Cloves studded in the top of a ham add flavor and decoration. Just be sure not to overdo it.
* Glazes can be mixed to a spreading consistency or thickly pourable. They can be uncooked or cooked prior to glazing.
* Hams can also be baked without a glaze, simply served with a sauce on the side.
* Chutneys can be used as glazes or served on the side.
* When the ham reaches the desired temperature (use a meat thermometer), remove it from the oven, tent with foil and let it rest 10 minutes before serving.
I'm rather partial to pineapple, and my favorite glaze combines it with tart lemon juice, sweet brown sugar and the extra bite of horseradish and ginger. Try it below, or concoct an inspired glaze using your own favorite ingredients.
Kate's Global Kitchen for March 2002:
03/01/02 Salt: The World's Biggest Shaker
03/08/02 Irish Recipes: Old and New
03/15/02 Parsley: The Emerald Herb
03/22/02 Easter: My Ham Glazes Over
03/29/02 Focus on Flavor: When Less Is More
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created March 2002
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