Nearly everyone loves a ham — the smoky, salty kind that is the plattered center attraction at many a special occasion. When I was growing up, getting the ham itself was also something of an event.
The decision to purchase a ham was not entered into lightly. Grocery flyers were consulted and cross-referenced for weeks in advance. Recon was done in the pork section of the meat department at more than one grocery store — sometimes in more than one town — contemplating price and quality.
Ham was much-loved and much-revered by my people (I still associate the smell of baked ham and lemon Joy dishwashing soap with my grandma), but it was an expense for a large cut of salty smoked pork, at times in double-digit poundage that would mean it would also take up considerable real estate in the fridge or freezer.
My parents seemed to understand the meaning of that old quip: “Eternity is a ham and two people.” The right ham — with a possible stay extending beyond the holiday table in the form of everything from fried slices at breakfast to the last pieces melting off the bone in a pot of beans or greens — was an important selection.
My father, in particular, in tune and enamored of most salted meats, spent extensive time poring over the supermarket circulars, weighing out the options — brined or dry-cured, cooked or partially cooked, bone-in or boneless, center-cut or picnic, fatty or lean, hickory or maple-smoked. The research paid off, with rarely a miss (infrequent but memorably disappointing hams were either too salty, too dry or too tough). The care put into the search reflected not only a respect for the intended purchase, but for the intended party or parties to whom it would be served.
“We got a ham,” my mother would announce to me on the phone in a hushed, but enthusiastic tone to impress just how much it meant that I was coming home to visit.
The hams my parents bought for Easter and other special occasions were prepared simply, tenderly roasted in the oven at a low temperature for a lengthy enough time that the smoky aromas permeated the entire house and drove us crazy. They were neither glazed, pineapple-adorned nor spiral sliced, but picked so selectively that the flavor they brought with them was usually enough, enhanced by the heat of the oven and a shallow bath of water and sliced onions. From this ham-infused broth, a holy grail of gravy was brought forth to be delivered in a salty, smoky river over creamy whipped potatoes.
I still crave ham in the spring, buying it with less preparatory research and in far more diminutive quantities than my parents, who nearly always made enough food to fill the bellies of more than one household. Sometimes my ham comes in the form of merely a couple of thick steaks, but they are similarly roasted with onions, just long enough to get the house “hammy” and give me enough pan juices for gravy.
Beyond that roasted celebratory version, leftover ham can find its way into other incarnations, making it even more “eternal.” Here are some possibilities:
Sandwiches: Of course, ham is meant for sandwiches, but try a new take by making ham biscuits, a Southern springtime tradition, often served around the Kentucky Derby in May. Have a brunch table set up with fluffy buttermilk biscuits, thin slices of ham and an array of jams, mustards, pimiento cheese spread or other condiments.
Seasonings: Use ham, particularly those with the bone in, to add flavor to soups and stews (like split pea), crockpots of beans and baked beans and kettles of turnip, mustard or collard greens or stewed or sautéed Swiss chard and kale.
Stir-ins: Tumble chopped ham into omelets or frittatas to bolster up breakfast menus, or add cubed ham to your macaroni and cheese or other cheesy pasta, rice or potato dishes.
Salads: Ham salad at its simplest is finely minced ham, sweet pickle relish and mayo mixed together and used as a spread on sandwiches, crackers or in lettuce cups. While a friend of my mother’s used to run ham through a hand-cranked grinder and mix up giant bowls of ham salad with her bare hands (it was a sight to behold), one can use more modern implements and smaller proportions to stir up a tasty version (see recipe) of this classic cafeteria favorite.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Ham Salad Recipe