hamming it up

Ham or gammon is a corruption of jambon, French for leg. Curing ham is a centuries' old craft. Dry-cured hams are salt-packed. The salt saturates the meat, after which a second curing stage involves more salt, sugar and seasonings, (usually the producer's

Ham or gammon is a corruption of jambon, French for leg.

Curing ham is a centuries’ old craft. Dry-cured hams are salt-packed. The salt saturates the meat, after which a second curing stage involves more salt, sugar and seasonings, (usually the producer’s own recipe).

Country hams, the most famous being the pricey Smithfield hams, from Virginia, get salted, soaked (to get rid of some of the salt), and then smoked over fragrant woods, commonly hickory. Southern folks seldom eat cured ham right off the bone as we might. Mostly they fry ham steaks for breakfast or bake a 15 pounder for supper.

A good ham is hard to find.

Seek out a good butcher, meat shop or ask the guy behind the meat counter for a good quality country-style ham. Try to avoid the mass-produced brine-injected hams. In truth, a number pass the taste test, but just as many lack flavour, are watery and/or rubbery. Nothing matches the sweet, salty taste and texture of a well-cured ham. It’s worth the search.

As well, many supermarket hams are wet cured, seeing little or no smoke. A bone-in smoked pork shoulder, which is, in fact, pork butt subs in beautifully. I remove its coarse, thick slab of fat and roast the shoulder atop the fatty blanket. The bone makes marvellous stock for French Canadian pea soup) And since I loathe the ubiquitous cherry-studded and pineapple/clove glaze, I baste the meat with a type of red-eye gravy, which relies on ham drippings, water and coffee, for ladling over fluffy homemade biscuits. My gravy also calls for a whack of whiskey.

(Legend has it that President Andrew Jackson requested his cook to make gravy as red as the cook’s corn whisky-induced eyes, hence the moniker, red-eye gravy. More likely the name comes from the oily circles that float on the gravy’s surface)

Find a good ham or pork shoulder. Bake and baste slowly. As the rich, sweet, smoky aromas of the baking ham waft among the rafters, whip up a batch of bourbon manhattans, the perfect pre-prandial to a baked ham and scallop potato supper. Don’t forget the biscuits.

Regard the following recipe for red-eye gravy as more of a guideline that an exact method. Just make sure the brewed coffee isn’t super bitter.

Red-eye gravy: (Enough to glaze a large ham. Make same quantity for smaller cut. Freeze any leftover gravy for pouring over biscuits. It’s also delicious for basting a roast chicken.)

6 oz strong brew coffee, (or run to the local coffee shop for an Americano).

4 oz GENUINE Maple syrup plus 2 tbsp of brown sugar (6 heaping tablespoons brown sugar will do if you don’t have syrup)

4-6 oz of Bourbon (Forty-Creek Canadian whiskey is a good substitute. Rye will do. Scotch not recommended).

1 tbsp dry mustard or 2 tbsp Dijon.

A dash of balsamic (optional)

Place all ingredients in saucepan over med-high heat and reduce until mixture becomes light syrup. (Don’t worry if it’s a bit thin; it will thicken in the roasting pan)

Baste the ham/pork shoulder intermittently during baking. Thin with a bit of stock, water, or whiskey if the sauce gets too sticky. Cover the meat with aluminum foil if the top becomes too caramelized.

Cured and/or smoked ham or pork shoulder requires only about 20 minutes per pound in a 300-325F oven). I tend to cook ham a little longer and at a little lower temperature than directed so glaze does not burn and the meat stays tender and juicy.

Recommended wines

Riesling rules with ham. Other aromatic fruity white such as viognier, wines fare well, too. In the red department look for straightforward fruity reds – California Zinfandel, French Beaujolais, Spanish Tempranillo, Italian Valpolicella, or Aussie Grenache-Shiraz.

Yukon Gold brew works, too.

Listed with the Yukon Liquor Corps.

White

Bishop of Riesling (Germany) $14.10

Yalumba Y Series Viognier $17.80

Red

Chamarre Grenache Shiraz (France) $14.15

Serego Alighieri Valpolicella (Italy) $19.80

Bodegas Montecillo Crianza (Spain) $19.75

Rosemount Grenache Shiraz (Australia) $16.20

Pepperwood Grove Zinfandel ($16.60)

Duboeuf Beaujolais (France) $16.95

A “Perfect Manhattan” recipe (adapted from Bon Appetit)

“Perfect refers not to the quality of the cocktail but to the equal amounts of sweet and dry vermouth in drink.

In a mixing glass or cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine 2 oz bourbon (or rye) whiskey, ½ ounce each dry (I go for Noilly Pratt) and sweet vermouth, and a dash of angostura or orange bitters. (Try to find the excellent Fee Brothers bitters – www.feebrothers.com). Stir well, about 20 seconds, then strain into cocktail glass. Add a twist lemon peel directly over drink to release essential oils, and serve.

Julie Pegg is a Vancouver-based

food and wine writer.

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