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February 01, 2007

Fine ham abounds: Newsom's aged Kentucky country ham

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It never ceases to amaze me that the centrepiece of North American holiday meals is a bird chosen by a group of people who dedicated their lives to avoiding pleasure.  I know, I know, it's tradition, they were starving, blah, blah, blah.  But c'mon, this has gone on long enough.  Do you really love turkey that much?  Of all the edible fowl, there's not a single one that ranks below the turkey in terms of taste, juiciness, or convenience, and yet everyone insists on it for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Rather than enjoying the simple elegance of a roast chicken, the succulence of a medium rare magret de canard, or the gamey bite of quail, people turn to the inferior gobbler.

To eat turkey is to be underwhelmed.  Since many of my friends seem willing to stab each other over the breast, let's start there.  A modern turkey breast is nothing more than a bowling ball of protein.  If it were merely dry and stringy, that would be one thing, but those shortcomings are compounded by the fact that a turkey breast has a taste profile only slightly more complex than iceberg lettuce.

As if it weren't bad enough that turkey fouls our plates twice a year, the relentless waddle of the turkey army continues apace. Some would now have you believe you should eat it out of season, replacing the beef and pork with turkey in your burgers and sausages.  Those with no shame now advocate turkey breast instead of a roast.

It's insane, and I'm doing all I can to stem this tide.  Every year I plead with Rachel to remove turkey from our holiday menu, and every year I'm denied.  I cope by devising ever more elaborate schemes to render this blandest, driest and stringiest of meats palatable.  Forget brining, I devoted more than a day of my life to making a Thompson turkey the Christmas before last.  I was told all that effort would be worthwhile.  "The juiciest bird you've ever eaten," they said.  Damn lies!  And don't even get me started on the week-long, Sisyphean torture that is turkey leftovers.

(Note from Rachel:  I have to intervene here and rebut some of Rob's points.  I quite like turkey, and decent cooking plus a good bird equals a delicious meal.  It doesn't have to be elaborately prepared.  Let's face it, someone who loves to experiment with molecular gastronomy is naturally drawn to the Byzantine complexity of a Thompson turkey -- and I helped him with it.  AND I've made excellent pot pie with leftover turkey, among other tasty dishes.  The man is simply unreasonable.)

Then I stumbled upon an alternative I knew Rachel couldn't refuse.  Last year, she reviewed a wonderful paean to the glories of the pig, Pig Perfect, by Peter Kaminsky.  Kaminsky criss-crossed the globe searching for the finest porcine delicacies.  One of the jewels he unearthed is Colonel Bill Newsom's aged Kentucky country ham.

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The preservation and curing of hams, once widespread throughout the southern United States, is a lost art.  Overwhelmed by food safety regulations and competition from meat processing mega-corporations, artisanal country-ham makers have all but disappeared.

Gone with them is a product every bit the equal of the more renowned Westphalia, serrano, and prosciutto hams.  Not so long ago, a typical American hog thrived on a diet of milk, peanuts, and leftovers.  That same hog spent his life outside, foraging, and, most importantly, getting really, really fat.  The importance of these last two points cannot be understated: fat is more than flavour, it is also essential to a long cure because it prevents the ham from drying out prematurely.  An active life -- which means a life spent beyond the torturous confines of a small cage -- helps to better marble the fat throughout the ham.

Once slaughtered, the ham was cured using the simplest of culinary tools: salt, sugar, smoke, and time.  Lots of time.  At least a year and often more.  The Newsom family has been making hams this way for three hundred years.

The effort shows.  Our free-range, organic ham was unlike any ham I'd ever seen.  Ham as I knew it was bright pink, cross-hatched, and boneless.  The first thing I noticed about my country ham is its colour: a dark, leathery brown.  This is the residue of a proper cure -- of the interaction between smoke and sugar and the slow release of moisture, fat and flavour from the ham itself.

A country ham can be eaten any number of ways.  Like its European siblings, it can simply be sliced thinly and enjoyed like prosciutto.  But this ham was destined to be the star of our Christmas dinner, so we decided on a recipe for country ham braised in cider and molasses from Pig Perfect.

The first step to preparing country ham is to soak it at least overnight and give it a good scrub.  This eliminates some of the saltiness, and it also serves as a good bath.  The ham then simmers in a mixture of apple cider, molasses, and aromatics for several hours, until it reaches an internal temperature of 170F.  Lastly, the ham is coated with a brown sugar and bread crumb mixture, and baked under high heat until a sugary crust forms.

A Newsom's ham puts grocery store hams to shame.  Though noticeably saltier than its mass-produced cousin, genuine country ham is also more, well, everything: sweeter, smokier, and vastly more complex.

The only problem is that our ham was not incredibly tender, a by-product of my asinine bladework.  Looking back, I'm beginning to think I neither sliced the ham thin enough nor against the grain.  Shame on me!

A large ham means lots of leftovers.  This is just another chance for country ham to shine.  Our Boxing Day breakfast was scrambled eggs, Alton Brown's Phase III buttermilk biscuits, and thinly sliced ham with red eye gravy.

Red eye gravy is a revelation.  It's made after frying the ham steaks by deglazing the pan with coffee, brown sugar, and a little pepper.  The result is, for me at least, the best syrup I've ever tasted -- a lot less sweet than maple syrup, but with added bitter, spicy, and even roasted notes.  It's the perfect accompaniment to a sizzling slice of ham.

Dinner for four and breakfast for four barely made a dent in the ham.  No problem.  Nothing's better on a cold winter's day than a classic French-Canadian split pea soup.  Aside from an unctuous texture and a mild salty and smoky flavour, the best part of this soup is that it affords an opportunity to use the ham bone.  What can I say?  I love to feel thrifty after spending more than USD$100 on any food item.

Throughout our ham adventure, I've been unable to shake a line from a Kids in the Hall skit I loved as a teen.  The sketch is about a teenager, Bobby, who gets kicked out of his home for being unable to express his love of his mom's ham steak without swearing.  Following in the great tradition of faux teen angst, Bobby complains: "My parents try to put me down because fine ham abounds."  Fine ham abounds?  Yes, it does!

For those who think I'm a fool for abandoning turkey (hello, Rachel), all is not lost.  I've decided to give turkey one last shot at redemption.  You see, I recently borrowed a turkey deep frying kit from a friend.  And if it lives up to the hype, I just might start eating turkey again.

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Comments

s'kat

What a vision of beauty! I wish I could get my family to stop with the turkey fixation, too.

Tommy

Rob,

Good analysis of the turkey situation.

I do disagree with you that a turkey is a protein bowling ball.

You don't even mention smoked turkey. A turkey, especially a breast, when properly smoked by an expert who knows his wood is as good as it gets.

Dont let the Morton Thompson method get you all riled. That is nonsense. Putting all that crap on and in a bird is ridiculous. Someone who thought that up doesn't know how to cook. Or has scar tissue on their tongue.

James

I'm with you rachel. The ham didn't sound like it came out any better than the turkeys of past. I soak my ham for 12 hours,scrub and then another 12.As for the bird in question, I did a jalapeno stuffing this year and smoked that bad boy 12 hours. Made a giblet gravy and was a happy camper. Perhaps if you try dicing the canned cranberry and re name it a gelee that might help. We make a mean cranberry relish. Now the whole purpose of the entire ordeal is for the turkey, mayo,stuffing and relish sandwiches on wonder bread the following day. don't give up so easily!

rob

Thank you, s'kat. Most of my friends are turkey lovers, so I've been taking some flak lately.

Thanks, Ian, that's very kind of you.

Thanks, Tommy. I think you may be right about smoked turkey, especially insofar as the smokehouse should impart lots of flavour to the final dish.

Stop James! You'll only force me to eat more turkey. Actually, you're turkey sounds delicious. It appears there's a small consensus for smoked turkey. Your jalapeno stuffing sounds wonderful, too. Now that's flavour.

tbtam

I'd rather have ham than turkey any day. And the leftover possibliities are so much better...

keiko

Rob - this looks absolutely lovely, I so wish I could taste it...

The Guilty Carnivore

My favorite Kids in the Hall segment ever. This was when they were on HBO and could drop F-bombs!

Rosewood

Do you still do the Phase 3 biscuits? I am all but convinced this is a bad recipe.

vagabond

I am an italian guy fund of italian cured ham such as http://www.renieri.net/home_e.html but i'd like to taste this one and other us ham: can you tell me where to buy online?

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