Hamming it up

By Frank Whitman

I can’t remember the last time I saw baked ham on a restaurant menu. Sure, there are plenty of ham sandwiches in delis and croque monsieur on bistro menus. But there was a time, perhaps in the Nixon administration, when restaurant menus included ham steak or baked ham as a Sunday roast.  Ham, then, moved to the brunch buffet carving station, but those days too have gone the way of the dodo. 

However, around Easter, ham gets its moment in the sun. It’s a favorite as a centerpiece for the home Easter table and can make a rare appearance on restaurant Easter menus – Harbor Lights in Norwalk for one.   

As long as there have been pigs and fire, meaty hams (legs) have been smoked to preserve the meat.  Enhancing the flavor was just a happy accident. The most famous hams these days are salt-cured, dry-aged from Spain and Italy. Jamone Serrano and Prosciutto di Parma enjoy well-deserved fame from their characteristic flavor and texture, but you wouldn’t want to sit down and eat a thick slice.  

Most European cultures have their own locally-prized and highly sought-after take on hams: Wiltshire, Yorkshire, Bayonne, Black Forest, Westphalian and more. 

Edwards Virginia style

Some regions across the American South, most notably the area around Smithfield, Virginia, are famous for country ham. These are raw-cured, heavily-salted, smoked and aged hams with a distinctly funky character. They are renowned for their flavor but need to be soaked and cooked to be palatable. 

What we’re accustomed to seeing in the deli case or as a roast is, for lack of a better name, a city ham. These are fully-cooked, mildly-smoked and ready to eat.  Their preparation is for flavor and not preservation – refrigeration is a must. From brand to brand they vary in saltiness and smokiness and are mostly mass produced by big companies.

There are, however, a few smaller, family-owned smokehouses that still seek out the best quality meat and smoke for full flavor and meaty texture. These are hams worthy of seeking out for a special occasion like Easter.  Yes, you’ll pay more, but they’re worth it.  

Nodine’s Smokehouse in Goshen, CT is the closest source for a hand-crafted ham. Their country store is slightly north of the intersection of Routes 63 and 4, just past the Goshen fairgrounds if you’re coming

Nodine’s smoked products

from the south.  It’s a pretty trip if you’re looking for a Spring drive. In addition to hams, the store is chock full of other smoked products: bacon, sausage, poultry, cheese and more. 

Happily, if you can’t make the drive, they ship.  You can have a ham in just a few days. Bone-in, boneless, sliced or whole, full or half, the hams come in a range of shapes and sizes.  In the past, we’ve enjoyed the smaller party ham, but this year I’m ordering the slightly larger boneless half, smoked over apple pomace. 

In addition to their genuine smoky flavor, Nodine’s hams have an authentic meaty texture, not dry, but not watery like some of the more commercial water-added products. Fully cooked and ready to eat, they only need to be gently re-heated and perhaps glazed with some tangy fruit. A simple mix of apricot jam and Dijon mustard brushed on for the last 15 minutes in the oven does the trick. 

Newsom’s brochure

There are sources down south for southern style city ham or the genuine country ham.  Family owned Edwards Virginia Smokehouse has been curing hams with the recipe handed down over generations since 1926.  Shipping is free on their wide range of products.  

Newsom’s Country Ham in Princeton, Kentucky has been curing pork since 1917.  Nancy Newsome Mahaffey, granddaughter of the founder, continues the tradition of award-winning dry-cured hams.  Her Smoky BBQ ham, nicknamed the “Preacher Ham” is in her words, “just about the best meal you can find to serve the preacher for Sunday dinner.”

There’s still time to order your ham for next weekend. Be sure to allow for leftovers – ham salad, ham sandwiches, ham casserole, and maybe a bone for soup.  There’s more than one tasty way to ham it up!

Easter Dinner