When the mornings get a little colder and the leaves begin to turn, I start to look for fun recipes to cook indoors. My good friend, David Roberts, of Community Q had mentioned to me some time ago about a recipe he had been given for rehydrating a country ham, cooking it in pickled peach juice, and then baking and glazing it. Growing up in Virginia, I learned at an early age to love true country ham. After relocating to Atlanta, I learned that when folks around here talk about country ham they are usually talking about spiral sliced, honey baked ham. I suppose a honey baked ham has its place in the world, but it is in no way a country ham. Country ham is salty enough to make you run for a glass of water if you are unprepared, and it has the texture of a good prosciutto. The new king of country ham is Alan Benton and it's no mistake that he sells country hams and prosciutto (as well as the best bacon in the country - just look at any gourmet restaurant menu these days and you will see his name.) So, I asked Dave for a copy of the recipe, and I was pleased to see that it was a depression era recipe that had been handed down from a grandmother. Any recipe that has almost 80 years on it and comes from a grandma is worth playing with. So, I set out to find a true country ham.
Country hams only make an appearance in Georgia from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and even then the local supermarket will only have a few of them scattered about on top of bunker coolers. I made a few calls and my buddy Dave (who put me on this path) said he always remembered seeing them at Kroger. Having already checked with Publix and gotten the "sorry-we-don't-have-those-unless-there-are-Xmas-trees-up" blow off, I was dubious. However, it turns out Kroger does carry country hams all year long - albeit only two hams at any one time. So, I ran over to the local Kroger flagship and found the glorious fourteen pounder you see below. Now, I like to eat. But, fourteen pounds of country ham can send a man into a nitrate coma. I wasn't pleased at how much I was going to have to buy, but it felt a little better to spend $30 on a 14 lb. ham than the $60 Alan Benton wanted for a 6 lb. ham that I was ultimately going to wind up experimenting on.
So, I found this ham literally sitting on the floor of Kroger. Normally, I avoid buying food that's sitting on the floor. But when that food has been cured with salt, who CARES!!! Salt is some serious shit. It can magically take meat that would rot in just 3 days and make it impervious to disease and all that other nasty stuff. But hang in there, this isn't the ugliest picture.
Yeah, that's mold. It turns out mold is totally normal when it comes to cured meats, charcuterie, and the like. In fact, it can be quite helpful, but that's a subject for another blog post. Let's turn to the recipe. I could share with you the recipe that Dave forwarded me, but it's not written in standard recipe format, and I'm not going to follow standard format either. If you want to read a nice narrative written by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, then you can go here . Scott is an ace Southern cook and runs one of Atlanta's best Southern restaurants, Watershed . He apprenticed with Edna Lewis and wrote an award winning cookbook. Edna is probably no more than ten years younger than the grandmother who supplied my recipe. There are very few differences between Edna's method and the recipe I was given, which I believe speaks to the generation in which this recipe/method was born.
The first thing I had to do was to break down my ham into usable parts. Having made my way around a pig once or twice, I knew where to make my cuts. I reserved the cut on the left for collards and greens and made the section on the right my serving ham. After breaking the ham down, I took both halves to the sink to wash and scrub the outsides to remove any mold and residual cure. I also trimmed out the blackish/brown meat. When in doubt, throw it out.
The next phase of the recipe/process seemed the easiest but in hindsight might be the most critical. When rehydrating a country ham, the idea is to soak the ham in water and allow osmosis to draw out the salt that has cured the ham, restoring it (somewhat) to its original state. Salt and water may be the two most important tools to a cook, and in this case they certainly hold center stage. In drawing out the curing salt, the ham will lose its prosciutto texture and its incredibly strong salty taste and begin to resemble a fresh ham. But the rules of osmosis dictate that one side always has to win. The more saline concentration will move towards the less saline concentration. Initially, the water draws out the salt. But as the salt content of the water raises, the rate of osmosis slows.
I studied various recipes, and the rates for changing the water vary greatly. Some recipes call for changing the water every six hours and others every 24 hours. Duration is another issue. My recipe called for just a 24 hour soak in water with a water change very six hours. Other recipes call for a three day soak with a water change once a day. After one run through this recipe/process, I am utterly convinced that the osmosis step is the most important one and the most difficult to judge. My initial conclusion is that the longer you can soak the ham and the more frequently you can change the water the better. But in the end, it is a true variable. You can never truly know how hard the ham was cured with salt. Sad to say, but I believe it is a guessing game.
So, it's up to you how long to soak your ham. The basic rule is that the longer you soak your ham, the less salt it will have. The more times you change out your water, the less salt will be in the finished product. After my first run through, I would advise no less than a three day soak with a water change every eight hours. With the recipe I was given, the next step was to simmer the ham in a pickled peach bath for roughly two hours. Pickled peach juice is not something you are going to find easily at your local Publix/Kroger. You are going to have to create this one on your own, but the good news is that it is not hard. The first step is to make a simple syrup - approximately 2 quarts. Simple syrup is made by combining equal parts sugar and water and bringing it to a boil only long enough to allow the sugar to dissolve. Then add cider vinegar at a 3:1 ratio. So, for a two quart simple syrup, you should add roughly 2 and two thirds cups cider vinegar. Next, add two 28 oz. cans of the cheapest canned peaches you can find to the syrup and allow to cool. While the mixture is cooling, you can add aromatics such as cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorn and so forth. Let your imagination take hold at this point and think Christmas. Bring the liquid and the ham to a slow simmer and allow to cook for two hours. Remove your cooking vessel from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
After allowing the ham to cool to room temperature, remove it from the pickled peach juice and move it to a cutting board. Remove the outer layers of skin and fat from the ham. The next step is to make a simple ham glaze for the baking process. There are many ways to make a ham glaze, and I urge you to use Google to decide which one best suits your tastes. For me, I incorporated a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of molasses, a tablespoon of cider vinegar, a tablespoon of dijon mustard, and a teaspoon of ground cloves in a small saucepan and heated it until it come together as a nice, thick glaze.
Place your ham on a sheet pan and warm your oven to 375 degrees. Place the sheet pan with the ham into the oven and glaze the ham. Continue to glaze the ham every 20 minutes. Use your senses to determine when the ham is ready. In my case, it took about one and one half hours to build up a respectable glaze. Remove the ham from the oven and allow to rest for twenty minutes if you intend to serve the ham warm, or refrigerate the ham and serve it the next day.
This closeup picture is included in my post to illustrate the power of salt and the importance of the soaking stage of this recipe. Do you see those crystals of salt on the ham? Those crystals existed after days of soaking, cooking in peach brine, and baking. After all my work, this was still very salty ham (not that I objected!) So, if you do not have a high tolerance for salt, then soak and change your water frequently. Your finished product can last weeks (up to a month) in the refrigerator. That is a boatload of delicous sandwiches, biscuits, omlets, collards and whatever else you can imagine. I will be revisiting this recipe over the Christmas holiday because Santa = country ham. As well, it makes tremendous cooking sense to have something like this lurking in your refrigerator. You can bust out your ham, make a few cuts, throw together some bread and mustard, and be a hero. If you are brave enough to give it a go, drop me a note and let me know how it worked out for you. Feliz Navidad, amigos! And for those of your that are devoted enough, here is the original recipe as I received it:
Wash/scrub ham to remove any surface curing material (salt, etc) and any normal mold.
Place ham in cold water to cover and soak, as noted above, changing water every six to eight hours.
After completed soaking, place ham in pot in which it will be simmered.
Grandmother saved juice from pickled peaches to add to the pot. Since I don't have quantities of peach pickle juice, I make about 1 to 2 quarts of a heavy sugar/vinegar syrup, using 1 part vinegar to three parts sugar. I put a hand full of whole cloves and a couple sticks cinnamon in this syrup. (Generally, I make the syrup when I start the soaking process.
Add the syrup to the 'cooking pot', add a couple cans of slices peaches (I use the cheapest I can find), then cover the ham with cold water.
Bring water to a simmer and simmer approximately 15 minutes per pound, remove from heat and let ham cool in the water until it can be easily handled. Most hams come wrapped or bagged and the instructions suggest simmering for 20 minutes per pound but since I am letting it cool for quite a while in the liquid I reduce the simmer time accordingly.
Remove ham from water and remove the skin and most of the fat.
At this point you can coat the ham for 'glazing' with your favorite glaze. I use a mixture of white sugar, brown sugar, and orange juice to make a paste. If I'm attempting to have a 'pretty' ham for 'public' slicing, I will cut a cross hatch pattern in the fat before putting the glaze material on --- stud the ham, in all cases, with whole cloves.
I have tried various methods of 'glazing' but seems that a 375 to 400 degree oven works best.
Bake until sugar has melted and ham is glazed.
Remove from oven, let ham cool until it can be wrapped (don't want it to sweat).
Slice as thinly as possible (my mother always side to slice it as nearly as possible so that it would have 'only one side').
Serve with hot biscuits, scones, or surprisingly good, orange or apple mini-muffins. I make a sweet/tart mustard sauce from a friend's grandmother's recipe --- don't know it from memory but there is virtually the same thing in "The Joy of Cooking" --- it has sugar, vinegar, heavy cream, dry mustard, a bit of flour, and an egg yolk.