It’s that time of year again….when the azaleas and dogwoods begin to blossom and strains of Stephen Foster start running through my head.
Kentucky Derby season is like an alarm clock going off in my brain, an inescapable mark on my internal calendar, reminding me of those regional peculiarities that have been ingrained in my psyche since childhood.
That alarm clock usually makes me hungry. Thoughts of growing up on the banks of the Ohio are braided with culinary traditions from fish fries to family picnics to Sunday dinners, southern style. Though I was always a picky eater my memories remain rich with many fond flavors, some of which take some work to recreate.
Among those flavors I think of Country Ham as particularly unique and a bit mysterious. As a girl I was wary of its dark color and dense texture. My grandmother sometimes served Country Ham steaks with Red Eye Gravy when we gathered at her house for our Sunday meal.
Country Ham slices were also a breakfast favorite that could be found on the menu at the diners my Dad liked to eat at in small towns around the state. For breakfast it was served along with eggs, biscuits and grits. Country Ham was also considered fine party fare, cut into thin slivers and nestled in the heart of tiny biscuits that were then piled on a platter.
I liked ham in general and was willing to give Country Ham a try but the strong and complex flavor of a well-aged ham was more than my palate could truly appreciate at the time. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but limited my indulgence to a bite or two at a time, food for thought when years as well as miles would eventually separate me from such traditional fare.
My brother, who moved out west even before I did, once shared his thoughts on Country Ham:
It isn’t often we see country ham out here. Wal-Mart Superstores sometimes have a brand from Arkansas in the meat section of their groceries, though I haven’t noticed it lately. Cracker Barrel restaurant usually has some to sell in their store section but I’ve never tried cooking one and don’t know where it is from. Smithfield Hams from Virginia are supposed to be especially good but I don’t think we’ve ever had one. Kentucky Hams are the best I’ve cooked…
most folks out here don’t seem to have heard of country ham or know how to cook it or eat it. If you throw it in the oven and treat it like a regular ham it must be dreadful. We do the long soak with multiple changes of water to reduce salt content, boiling it until basically done, then a final baking stage in glaze to make it smell wonderful and sweeten the taste. A really well aged old ham, sliced paper thin and eaten on a beaten biscuit with unsalted butter, is up there with really great caviar, sushi, whatever. I’ll take a bite then suck in air to fill my palate with the savoury aroma and taste elements. It is divine. On the other hand, cutting a big thick slice and making a ham sandwich with it misses the point entirely. It is all in how you eat and prepare it.
Another thing with leftover country ham is to fry a slice up, add coffee to the drippings in the skillet to make red-eye gravy, and serve it for breakfast with fried eggs and grits. I think I ate that at the Melrose with you one time, I certainly had it there on occasion. One of our railroad cookbooks has the L&N’s recipe for it but there really isn’t any magic other than having leftover cooked country ham that was done right and good black coffee for the gravy. But that again is something folks don’t seem aware of out here.
Hanging a Ham
His comments sparked my interest. As I remembered those small bites from childhood I wondered how that salty cured ham would taste to me now and I decided to order one for myself. After considering several sources I settled on Finchville Farms because they use only a few natural ingredients to preserve the ham according to a traditional recipe, the business is family owned and based in Kentucky and the website was easy to navigate.
When it arrived it was neatly wrapped in white cloth. I wondered at the joint of meat swaddled inside this pristine packaging. I thought of unwrapping it to get a better look but I wasn’t sure I would know how to rewrap it securely. I thought of cooking it but….this was a whole ham. It weighed 15 pounds. I thought it better to wait for the right time, a good dose of courage and plenty of company before diving into that process.
Instead I hung it in the garage as suggested. My intention was to cook it for a summer party but then the summer was late showing up and by the time it finally arrived I had lost all social inclination. The ham waited, hanging on its nail for the better part of a year, dripping a little from time to time. My sons occasionally complained of hitting their head on it when they went to get a soda from the refrigerator nearby.
Unwrapping the Mystery
Though my social aspirations never returned my curiosity finally got the better of me. After a year of dodging the ham as I passed through the garage I took it down from its nail and opened the wrapping to expose a ham that was not as scary as I had sometimes imagined.
From hook to table was a long and sometimes primitive process. Once I had discarded the wrappings I took a stiff brush and scrubbed the hard skin of the ham to remove all mold and debris. The next step was to soak it for a good long while. Various sources suggest anywhere from overnight to several days as the optimal time for soaking, changing the water several times in the process to reduce the saltiness of the meat. After soaking the ham is boiled or baked, then cooled and stripped of skin before trimming the fat as desired. Finally, just before serving, the ham can be scored and glazed in a slow oven to sweeten the flavor and the final presentation.
Cooking a Country Ham
1 whole country ham
lots of water
3 or 4 bay leaves (optional)
1/2 cup brown sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole allspice (optional)
a handful of whole cloves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider, or orange juice
Scrub the ham under running water with a stiff brush to remove all traces of mold and other debris.
Cover the ham with water and soak for 24 hours, changing the water several times during the process. (I soaked my ham in a clean sink.)
Drain and scrub again, lightly this time, before transferring the ham to a large pot or pan. Cover the ham at least halfway (but not completely) with water. If desired, you may add the bay leaves, 1/2 cup of brown sugar and whole allspice to the cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook 20 minutes per pound turning the ham from side to side in the liquid now and then. (I cooked mine in a large deep roasting pan and covered it tightly with heavy duty aluminum foil since no other lid was available.)
Cool the ham in the liquid. When cool enough to manage, remove the skin and trim the fat as desired to make a smooth surface. Refrigerate until ready to finish for a meal.
Shortly before serving remove the ham from the refrigerator. Score the fat side lightly in a criss-cross diamond pattern. Stud the marks where the lines cross with whole cloves. Pour the juice or cider over the ham and pat 1 cup of brown sugar on top.
Place the ham in a slow oven (325F) until the glaze begins to bubble and brown. Remove ham from the oven and slice thin to serve.
Notes: Leftover ham can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks (the Finchville Farms website says that cured country ham, wrapped to prevent drying out, will keep in the refrigerator up to one month). It can also be wrapped and frozen for later use.
I was surprised by the white specks in the sliced ham. At first I was a little concerned but after looking into it I learned that these are actually a prized feature of a well-aged ham.
From Out of Kentucky Kitchens by Marion Flexner, "When sliced the meat will be of a dark reddish-brown color, flecked with white. (Strangers have thought such hams spoiled and refused to eat them. But they were wrong, for the white specks are medals of merit. By them you can tell the genuine article.)"
Another source, Country Ham by Dan Gill, explains, "During the aging process, proteins are broken down by enzymes and other natural processes into flavorful peptides and amino acids. Free glutamates give hams the savory and appealing "umami" qualities and over time, enough of the amino acid tyrosine is released to crystallize into the deposits that my father referred to as white flecks."
In summary, the white specks are a good thing!