Country ham and happy Easter memories

April 02, 2006|By SANDRA PINCKNEY

I HAVE WONDERFUL memories of Easter Sundays spent with my family over the years.

Joyful Easter services dressed in our Easter best, Easter egg hunts, and Easter baskets that would magically appear on the dining room table, filled with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans.

The fun would begin the day before, when eggs were boiled and readied for dyeing.

My dad was colorblind, but that never stopped him from supervising this event. So, ours was the only family on the block with Easter eggs in colors of chartreuse, pea green and brownish maroon.

One year, we tried natural dyes, boiling vegetables and using the water for colors.

Beets for red. Onion skins for yellow. Blueberries for blue.

Let's just put it this way -- the eggs looked nothing like the picture in the magazine.

The next Easter we were back to store-bought Easter egg dye kits.

While we never knew how the Easter eggs would turn out or what the Easter Bunny would deliver on Easter Sunday, one thing we could always count on was Easter ham for dinner.

It served as both the main course and spectacular centerpiece.

My grandmother's ham was always over the top.

She first scored the skin in diamond shapes, decorated it with cloves and pineapple slices, then basted it with a brown sugar glaze.

The ham was beautiful and delicious. But it was my mother who introduced me to the pleasures of country ham.

Country ham is the opposite of city ham -- the ham you ordinarily find in the supermarket.

If you don't live in the South, you will have to send away for one.

Country hams come in hanging cloth bags and are dry cured in lots of salt, then aged for months.

Unlike city hams that you pop in the oven and bake for an hour or so, country hams take time.

They have to be soaked, simmered and baked before they make it to the table.

The soaking alone takes three days -- which draws out the excess salt and rehydrates the meat.

Then you boil the ham (actually, it simmers for about 20 minutes a pound ) on top of the stove before it's baked.

What results is a very rich, classic Southern treat.

Because it's so rich, country ham is sliced very thin -- a little goes a long way.

Now when I think of country ham, it brings back memories of my mother.

Decorated city hams evoke warm thoughts of my grandmother.

I am so thankful for both and for Easter memories that get sweeter with the passing of time.

Sandra Pinckney, a former Baltimore TV journalist, is host of "Food Finds" on the Food Network. Send comments to unisun@baltsun. com

HAM SOURCES

If you cannot find a country ham in your area, here are some terrific choices:

Smithfield Farms

smithfieldham.com

800-222-2110

Johnston County Hams

countrycuredhams.com

800-543-4267

S. Wallace Edwards & Sons

virginiatraditions.com

800-222-4267

SMITHFIELD HAM BAKED WITH MADEIRA

1 Smithfield (or country) ham 13-15 pounds, boiled

3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into small pieces

1 bottle good-quality Madeira wine

fresh nutmeg for grating

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If the ham is not trimmed, remove the skin and all but a thin coating of fat.

Put the fully cooked and trimmed ham on a roasting rack in a heavy roasting pan. Dot the surface with small pieces of butter.

Pour the Madeira into the roasting pan, and grate the fresh nutmeg generously over the ham.

Put the ham in the oven.

After 30 minutes, begin basting the ham every 15 minutes and cook for about an hour, or until the ham is well-glazed and carmelized and the fat is blistered. Be careful not to burn the glaze.

Remove from oven and allow the ham to rest for 15-20 minutes before cutting into very thin slices, starting at the hock end and proceeding toward the front.

If serving the ham warm, skim all fat from the roasting pan and serve the pan juices as a simple and delicious sauce.

Serve warm, cold or at room temperature.

.......................

Adapted from "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock

PINEAPPLE GLAZE

1 15-ounce can of pineapple slices (drain and reserve the juice)

toothpicks

small jar of maraschino cherries

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

dash of ground cloves

Before baking, put pineapple slices on the ham with toothpicks.

For fun, you can add maraschino cherries in the center of each slice.

For glaze, mix brown sugar, mustard, cloves and reserved pineapple juice in a small pan and cook over medium heat until thick. Spread over ham, two times in the last half-hour of cooking.

BROWN SUGAR GLAZE

(For 10-14 pound ham)

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 / 2 teaspoon ground cloves

orange marmalade

Mix brown sugar, mustard and cloves.

Add just enough marmalade to make a stiff paste.

Remove ham 30 minutes before it's done. Pour drippings from pan. Score fat surface of ham cutting in diamond shapes, inserting a whole clove in each one.

Spread glaze over ham and continue baking for 30 minutes or until the glaze is caramelized and nicely browned.

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