The HOV Nation Approves: How to Go HAM on Easter Sunday with Heirloom Pork

Whether fresh, brined, smoked, or glazed, the classic roast is a perfect centerpiece for the holiday meal.

(Photo: William Shaw/Getty Images)

By Jane Lear

For a while now, our Easter dinner has been a meatless one, revolving around anasparagus lasagne that is as delicious and festive as it is easy to make. But this year, I have a hankering for ham. Smeared with a sweet-tart glaze, it’s a holiday cook’s best friend because you just pop it in the oven to heat through while you’re outside basking in the springtime sunshine.

To the uninitiated, though, ham is a bit intimidating, so I’m here to help. The word refers to an entire hind leg of a hog, which is one massive hunka meat — it can feed 18 to 20, with leftovers. That’s why most people generally buy a half ham, which serves 8 to 10. I, like many, happen to prefer the shank end — the section closest to the trotter. Even though the butt end is larger, it contains part of the femur as well as the aitchbone (part of the pelvis), and so it’s more difficult to carve. The shank end, on the other hand, has less connective tissue and more uniform meat, and therefore it cooks more evenly. It also looks mighty handsome on a serving platter, and at the end of it all you are left with one magnificent soup bone — reason alone for split pea soup or gumbo z’herbes, a spring tonic if there ever was one.

There is such a thing as fresh ham — it’s an uncured bone-in leg of pork. With sweet, tender meat, it makes a great roast for a crowd, and it’s generally less expensive than a pork loin roast. And then there is the picnic ham, which is cured and/or smoked but isn’t actually a true ham at all; it comes from the lower end of the pork shoulder. A picnic ham needs long, slow, moist cooking, but the end result is tender and flavorful.

What we think of as traditional hams, though, are cured by two basic methods. A so-called country ham is dry-cured for weeks in salt, then smoked and aged for a year or more. Dry, tangy, and distinctively, intensely salty (it must be soaked before cooking), it is meant to be nibbled in very thin slices or slivers that are often nestled into hot biscuits with a slick of mustard or Major Grey’s chutney, or fried and served at breakfast with eggs, grits, and red-eye gravy. Nothing if not adaptable, it’s also wonderful shredded into risotto or a mac and cheese.

Related: Chipotle’s Sustainable Pork Producer Just Sold Out to Big Ag — but Maybe That’s a Good Thing?

One stellar producer of country hams is Allan Benton, of Benton’s Country Hams (since 1947), in Madisonville, Tennessee. Benton is one of the nicest, most modest figures in the culinary world — and also one of the most exalted. Working out of a cinderblock building by the side of US 411, he cures and smokes bacon and mahogany-red country hams in a traditional, cut-no-corners method. He was artisanal before artisanal was cool, in other words, and doesn’t need a beard to prove it.

A more common ham offering — particularly when you leave the American South, or when you want a juicy, meaty Easter or Christmas ham that’s glazed or studded with cloves — is what’s known as a city-cured, or city, ham. It’s often soaked in or injected with a brine of water, salt, and sugar before being cooked and then smoked for up to a few days; the resulting ham is moist, tender, and succulent.

One of my favorite purveyors, Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, in Surry, Virginia, suffered a devastating fire in January. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the family-owned smokehouse — which has been in business for more than 75 years and is one of the biggest employers in the county — is closed until further notice. “As demolition continues, we found some cooked ‘loaf’ country hams still in their molds,” read a recent Facebook update. “As the great Ricky Skaggs once said, ‘You can’t hurt ham!’ ”

Edwards is known for their country ham and Surryano (an outstanding American alternative to aged European dry-cured ham), as well as their “Tender Smoked” honey ham, which is somewhat drier than most city-cured hams, but has a terrific salty-sweet-smoky balance. You’ll find milder hams at many purveyors; two I can personally vouch for are Lobel’s, in New York City, which sells ham from a smokehouse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Snake River Farms, in Idaho, which carries a boneless half ham made from Kurobuta (what the Berkshire breed is called in Japan), the “Kobe beef” of the pork world.

The meat of Berkshires and other heritage-breed hogs like Tamworths, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Ossabaws is becoming increasingly available, and in large part, consumers have chefs to thank. A number of them are even raising their own animals, with all the satisfaction and other, more complicated emotions that entails. “Dropping off your first pigs at the abattoir can be a humbling experience. After the first time I did it, I couldn’t sleep that night,” southern chef Sean Brock confessed in his cookbookHeritage. “But when you pick up the carcass of beautiful pork raised in a humane and responsible manner, there is a sense of pride involved.”

“To be a chef means to buy and cook meat, and that means we have a choice to make,” he continued. “The differences between the animals that modern agribusinesses produce and animals raised on pasture and humanely treated cannot be understated.”

“My goal is to create a demand to keep heritage breeds alive. I believe that eating these animals, those of heritage breed and of proper husbandry, guarantees their very survival,” he continued, adding, “No one will grow them without a ready demand.”

In the Kitchen

A city ham may or may not be labeled “partially cooked,” but no matter: Its preparation is basically the same. Here’s one recipe that uses unsweetened pineapple juice that’s been concentrated into a syrup; it’s especially good with the smoky-salty meat.

An even simpler technique is to use a paring knife to score the skin of a half ham with quarter-inch-deep parallel lines about one inch apart; score the skin the same way in the opposite direction to create a diamond pattern. Put the ham on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a double thickness of foil (to make cleanup easy) and tent with foil; bake in a 300-degree oven until heated through, about 15 minutes per pound. Remove the foil and brush the ham all over with a glaze (see below). Bake 15 minutes more, then brush with more glaze and any juices on the baking sheet. Continue to bake the ham until the skin is burnished, about another 10 minutes. Transfer the ham to a carving board to rest at least 15 minutes before slicing.

One of my favorite glazes was developed by Greg Lofts, a former colleague at Martha Stewart Living. It’s thick enough to brush on (and stay on) the ham without reducing, and it gets its flavor from just three ingredients: 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme. There’s no reducing involved; just mix the ingredients together and slather as directed. Yum.

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