The Country Ham

I bought my first country ham back in May. We happened to be near Smithfield, VA and I loved the idea of getting a ham there to bring home and eat. But I was also nervous about the ham: isn’t eternity defined as two people and a ham? (We’re a family of three, but one of us is less than 2 years old.)

I waffled on the ham for over an hour. My husband was behaving like a drug pusher who’s too cool to care but secretly wants you to take that first hit. “I don’t want to spend the next six months listening to you complain that you should have bought that ham when you had a chance,” he said. I wish I’d responded, “I don’t want to be denied the pleasure of complaining that I should have bought that ham when I had a chance,” but instead I ponied up for the damn ham already.

It hung out in my pantry for several months, until an old friend came up to spend the day. She’s a fellow food nerd, so I thought it would be fun to cook the ham together. Then I did some research and realized that it would be a multi-day process. So I unwrapped it, scrubbed it down, soaked it in several changes of water for a few days, scrubbed it again, removed the skin, slowly poached it in a water-vinegar bath for a couple of hours, and set it aside. I love said fellow food nerd friend, but I was pretty tired of dealing with the ham before she even arrived, and I went and took a nap in the middle of the day she was visiting.

She took over, scoring the meat and pushing cloves into the diamonds she’d cut and patting the thing with brown sugar. It baked for an hour or so until the sugar and fat fused into a crunchy-sweet glaze, and then we pulled it out so I could slice it for dinner.

I pride myself on my mad knife skillz. However, in all my reading on country hams, nobody warned me how stubborn these things are when you try to take a knife to them. Everybody tells you to slice it thin, but nobody tells you that this is really the only way you can cut meat that’s been cured and dessicated for months on end. I managed to get some wafer-thin slices off and we ate a few for dinner with our friend, stuffing them into homemade biscuits smeared with summertime sour cherry jam from the pantry. Good eatin’, true.

I was unprepared for just how rich and salty this stuff was. It’s strongly flavored. I’m a salt whore, and the salt levels pushed me to my limits. I could only manage a few thin shards. It’s delicious, but it’s not a taste I can handle too much of on its own. Unfortunately, I still had about 99% of a country ham to use up when I came to this conclusion.

I have since managed to hack off a bunch of chunks and freeze them. Once a week or so I pull the ham out of the fridge and whack away at it with my knife (I find a serrated knife works for chunks, a long thin slicer for slices) and use it in a recipe. I’ve made split pea soup (easily the best batch I ever made), baked beans (sooooo rich), and jambalaya so far. We had some more ham biscuits at Thanksgiving. I still have about half a ham to use up, and I figure it’s good for at least another month. Ideas welcome. Save us from eternity, folks.


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