Ham for the holiday

The sweet, smoky meat is an Easter tradition for many.

March 27, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

In many households, a nicely cured ham is as central to the Easter feast as eggs and bunnies are to the hunt. Flavorful, versatile and easy to prepare, ham makes a tasty and attractive centerpiece for a memorable meal.

No one knows exactly how ham became associated with Easter, but historians have suggested a number of possible reasons.

For one, it was a practical choice, especially on family farms where the hindquarters of hogs slaughtered in the chill of the fall were cured and safely preserved through the winter, ready to be served as a welcome treat in early spring.

For another, pigs represented prosperity in some cultures, giving them added symbolism as the centerpiece of a religious celebration.

More intriguing, anthropologists see theological and cultural roots in the association of ham with Easter. Early Christians needed ways to distinguish their religion from Judaism. Embracing pork, a food forbidden to Jews, offered a clear difference.

Then there is the "duh" reason for ham at Easter or any time - the sweet, smoky flavor is just downright good. And even if it isn't exactly fast food, the relative ease of preparing a ham adds to its attraction as the centerpiece for an Easter feast, or any meal when families gather to celebrate.

These days, ham and other pork dishes are being touted as a lower-fat alternative to beef. In fact, since World War II, hogs have gotten so much leaner that the National Pork Board says extra-lean ham has a fat and calorie profile almost comparable to boneless, skinless chicken breast.

Tom Hartsock of the University of Maryland, College Park explains it this way: Until World War II, lard (hog fat, as opposed to tallow, which is beef fat) was a mainstay of every kitchen, which meant that the fat on a hog was at least as valuable as the meat.

But during the war, scientists found ways to make cooking oil from plant sources, a much cheaper source of fat. So demand for lard slackened, and farmers began breeding for leaner hogs.

"We've taken two-thirds to three-quarters of the fat off," says Hartsock, who directs UMCP's Institute of Applied Agriculture.

Hartsock got a graphic demonstration of the difference in the early 1970s, when he examined some pigs descended from pre-World War II genetic stock. He measured three inches of subcutaneous fat on the animals, as compared to less than one inch and, "on some better hogs, less than 1/2 inch" of fat today.

"We're probably approaching the point where we don't want them much leaner, or we'll get complaints about dry pork chops," Hartsock says.

Even lean ham is flavorful, thanks to the curing process, which usually involves both salt and smoke. Then there are the glazes that can be basted on before serving. Glazes aren't necessary, but they offer so many flavor possibilities that it's a shame not to use them, or to experiment now and then. Fruit glazes are always popular, but it's also intriguing to try less-familiar flavors like hoisin sauce, chili paste, five-spice Chinese seasoning and other flavors of Pacific Rim countries.

Ham offers consumers a lot of choices: cooked or uncooked; bone-in or boned; country-style ham; ham with natural juices or water-added.

Bone-in hams are considered more elegant, and the bone does add some flavor. They're harder to carve, but you can always ask your butcher to spiral-slice it. Or log onto the pork board's consumer Web site, www.otherwhitemeat. com, for a video carving demonstration. Bone-in hams usually serve two to three people per pound.

Boneless hams are easier to slice and typically yield four to five servings per pound.

Old-fashioned or country-style ham is dry-cured over several months and salty. Its flavor is so intense that small servings suffice. These hams require both soaking and cooking.

The process for preserving quick-cured or "city hams" can take anywhere from overnight to 10 days or more, depending on the method, according to Tom Wagner, who cures hams in Mount Airy.

Almost all quick-cured hams are fully cooked, although Carma Rogers, an information specialist with the pork board, says that consumers should always check labels carefully to be sure. The pork board recommends that a ham labeled "cook before eating" be roasted to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. That should take about 30 minutes per pound.

The label should also tell whether the ham was cured with natural juices or with water, which affects the percentage of protein in the meat.

"Ham with natural juices" must contain at least 18.5 percent protein. This process produces a ham the pork board describes as having a "velvety" texture. It can be shaved or thinly sliced, and is a good choice for holiday tables.

"Ham with water added" retains more water during the curing process. It's often used for ham steaks, and can also be used for thin slicing and shaving. Government regulations require that hams sold under this description be at least 17 percent protein.

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