November heralds the holidays and traditional holiday foods. I may be a chef and restaurateur at work, but to my family I am the cook. One of their favorite foods is ham, and it is also one of my favorites to prepare because I can cook it once and find a hundred ways to use it. Ham can flavor, garnish or be the main ingredient in soups, salads, sandwiches, appetizers, quiches, omelets, biscuits, mac and cheese, pancakes, croquettes, cooked greens, rice, quinoa, beans—and more.
After cooking, ham can be portioned, wrapped and frozen for later use. To get a look at the many different varieties of ham produced here and abroad, I recommend Ham, with more than 100 Recipes from Around the World, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010).
When I say ham I mean only one kind: American hardwood-smoked, uncooked, wet-cured ham from the hindquarter of the pig. A whole ham is too big for our family and the mechanics of cooking it are better done in a restaurant kitchen with giant stockpots and ovens. For home I recommend a 9 to 10-pound half ham. You can purchase the shank half (think foot to knee) or the butt half (think knee to hip). The shank end is usually a little larger and it is easier to carve around the single main bone. I have strong opinions about ham. I don’t like to buy precooked hams, just to reheat them, giving me no control over flavor or salt content. I am not a fan of the pre-glazed, pre-sliced hams either; to me they are very salty and the thin slices get dry when heated. I consider precooked canned hams over processed and bland. Boneless or bone-in picnic hams from the front part of the pig to me lack the texture and flavor of a real ham. What a grouch, eh?
But when it comes to American bone-in, wet-cured, hardwood-smoked ready-to-cook ham, I am beyond enthusiastic. I purchase a 9 to 10-pound ham, allowing ½ pound per person, which means leftovers. I like the reduced sodium varieties, and I first boil the ham.
Believe me, it will still be plenty salty when cooked. My pot of choice is a 12-quart stockpot (every kitchen should have one; mine was a budget model, and it has served well for the last 12 years of hard use). And my poaching liquid of choice is half pure apple juice or apple cider and half water. I cook it until it reaches the recommended safe temperature or above. The instructions on each ham will give you a safe temperature: on my most recent ham it said 148°F. When boiled, it registered 158°F on my instant-read thermometer.
The ham comes with skin on. You can cut this off, leaving a thin even layer of fat, before you boil the ham, or you can wait until after you boil it and it is cool enough to handle.
Either way, once the skin is removed, score the fat in a crisscross pattern using a sharp knife.
After boiling, comes glazing and baking to make it look appetizing for serving. Here comes that grouch: covering the ham with canned pineapple slices and maraschino cherries before baking is so yesterday. And just try keeping them on the underside, not to mention carving. Coating the ham with a thick sugary glaze seems to me like gilding the lily: do you want to taste tender juicy ham or thick syrup? Before baking my boiled ham I do what Julia Child recommended: Dust the scored boiled ham liberally with powdered sugar and bake it at a high temperature until it is browned.
Last comes garnish: I garnish the platter with crisp, freshly washed artisanal baby greens. That way each person served can, if they wish, make a sandwich with the bread or rolls and mustard on the dinner table.
Nobody said it better than Julia: “Bon Appétit!” (I can hardly wait for ham and potato soup.)
- 1 (9 to 10-pound) hardwood-smoked, wet-cured, uncooked shank half ham
- 2 quarts pure apple juice or apple cider
- 2 quarts water
- ½ cup powdered sugar, or as needed
- Artisanal baby greens, as needed
- Unwrap the ham and cut away the skin, leaving a thin even layer of surface fat. (Alternatively you can do this after the ham is boiled as soon as it is cool enough to handle.)
- Place the ham face down in a 12-quart stockpot. Add water and apple juice to just cover. Heat over medium-high until the liquid boils; lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cover and cook until the ham reaches the desired temperature specified on the packaging instructions, about 17 minutes per pound.
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- Using an oven mitt and a strong meat fork, lift cooked ham from pot and place in a baking pan fitted with a rack. Using a small sieve, dust ham top, sides and front liberally with powdered sugar.
- Place in oven and bake until sugar caramelizes and browns, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Transfer ham to a serving platter. Surround the ham with crisp artisanal baby lettuce leaves.
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