Hamming IT UP For holiday dish, some sauces to savor

March 28, 1993|By Marlene Sorosky | Marlene Sorosky,Contributing Writer

We all know how some holiday food specialties became traditions. For example, the Pilgrims went into the woods and shot large birds so we now have turkey for our Thanksgiving feast. Roast beef for Christmas dinner would seem to be part of our British heritage. But few of us know why we eat ham for Easter, a custom that began in the 18th-century rural South and Midwest.

Because wild hogs could provide their own food by foraging in the underbrush, it was economical to round them up and fatten them. Swine took only one year to mature and were always slaughtered in the fall so that the meat could hang and cure over the cooler months. It was March before the haunches were ready for eating, just in time for the Easter celebration. Today's cooks -- can happily forget about raising, hanging, soaking and cooking their springtime pig. Why not buy one of those wonderful honey-glazed ready-to-eat hams, and instead of hovering over the oven for hours, concentrate on sauces to complement this meat's salty-smoky taste?

I suggest three varieties -- offer them all and let your family vote for its favorite. The most sophisticated is a creamy, tangy mustard sauce, accented with horseradish and green peppercorns. (Green peppercorns are soft, underripe berries that are less pungent than their aged black cousins, and even when used liberally, won't make you sneeze.)

The other two are fruit-based sauces that can easily be cooked in the microwave. Garnet double cherry sauce, reminiscent of the raisin sauces Grandma used to serve, is made with sweet and sour cherries, heightened with canned cranberry sauce and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The tartness of fresh or frozen rhubarb acts as a counterpoint to fragrant peaches and cooks down to a chutney-like consistency in peach-rhubarb sauce.

Asparagus salad with hazelnut vinaigrette continues the spring theme. When I prepared asparagus using various cooking methods -- microwaving, steaming and simmering in bunches in a skillet -- the skillet technique won hands down, producing more evenly cooked spears with brighter color and perkier flavor. Tied in bundles with blanched green onion tops instead of string, they are ready to be cooked, chilled, dressed and served. The frugal part of me resists buying expensive hazelnut oil, especially when it's so easy to make by steeping toasted hazelnuts in vegetable oil. The homemade version is a little thinner and less concentrated, but the resulting nuts offer their own flavor bonus. Pencil-thin asparagus, sprinkled with the strained oil, a -- of raspberry vinegar and the toasted nuts, produces a smashing accompaniment for springtime ham.

It is said by old-fashioned country farmers that they use every part of the slaughtered hog except the oink. Isn't it nice that today's cooks need only worry about bringing home the ham in order to continue one of our oldest national traditions?

Garnet double cherry sauce

Makes 3 1/2 cups.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Advance prep: may be refrigerated up to four days.

1 can (16 ounces) dark sweet cherries

1 can (16 ounces) tart cherries

1/2 cup whole-berry cranberry sauce or cranfruit

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons currant jelly

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons fresh chopped mint or 1/2 teaspoon dried mint, to taste, optional

Into a 1-quart (4-cup) microwave-safe bowl or saucepan, drain 1/2 cup of the dark sweet cherry juice and 1/4 cup of the tart cherry juice. Discard remaining juice. Add cherries, cranberry sauce, cornstarch, jelly and vinegar. Stir to combine. Microwave on high (100 percent) for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring after 3 minutes, or cook on top of the stove over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until sauce comes to a boil and thickens. If desired, stir in mint. Serve warm or at room temperature. (The sauce may be refrigerated up to 4 days.)

Peach-rhubarb sauce

Makes 2 cups.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Microwave time: 14 to 18 minutes

Advance prep: may be refrigerated up to 4 days.

1 piece peeled ginger, about 1-inch by 3/8 -inch thick (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)

1 1/2 cups plus 3/4 cup frozen peach slices, divided, partially thawed, coarsely chopped

1 cup fresh or frozen rhubarb, partially thawed and coarsely chopped

5 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

In a food processor with the metal blade, process ginger until minced. Add 1 1/2 cups peaches and rhubarb and pulse until coarsely chopped. Place peaches, rhubarb, honey and lime juice in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high (100 percent) uncovered, for 14 to 18 minutes without stirring, until the consistency of thick applesauce. Cool to room temperature and stir in reserved peaches. (The sauce may be refrigerated up to 4 days.) Serve warm or at room temperature.

Mustard sauce with green peppercorns

Makes 1 cup.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Advance prep: may be refrigerated up to 1 week.

2/3 cup light or regular sour cream

2 tablespoons grainy mustard, such as Pommery Moutarde de Meaux

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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