BY TOM YATES
I only know one way to prepare and cook a Christmas country ham.
Marge and Dad married when I was 14 years old. After they married, we moved from my grandparent’s house to the other side of the farm into a home that my father built by himself from the ground up. Come winter, the bare branches danced over the house, casting flickering thin shadows across the frozen ground. In an unassuming way, holidays in our home were low key and wonderfully magical.
Year after year, sometime during the Thanksgiving weekend, we’d pile into my father’s orange GMC pickup truck to scour the farm for the perfect cedar Christmas tree. After hauling the tree home, we’d rearrange the furniture and gently secure the tree into its corner before decorating it with handmade wooden ornaments and fresh cranberry garlands. During the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, banisters were magnolia-ed and and wreaths were hung until the house was bedecked. Christmas in Port Oliver. Even so, it wasn’t quite Christmas until the country ham arrived. Now, the ham didn’t just appear on the Christmas table in the blink of an eye. It took days to prepare, relegating it to the status of house guest. Working in tandem, Marge and dad prepped, scrubbed, soaked, simmered, wrapped, and baked the beloved ham for Christmas Eve dinner. For years, I watched closely and learned how to prepare country ham the old fashioned way. While there are countless methods for cooking a whole uncooked cured country ham, I only know of one way to capture the taste of my Christmases past.
With my family’s early Christmas gathering looming on the horizon, I journeyed home.
A good Christmas ham starts with a great ham. Browning’s Country Ham, from Dry Ridge, cures and ages their hams for 12 months. Both mild and robust, it’s one of the go-to hams around these parts. When I had a hard time locating a retail source for their hams, I simply called them. Boom. In three days, a 14-pound whole uncooked country ham arrived on our front stoop bundled up to keep the varmints at bay.
Cleaning, Soaking. Simmering. Wrapping. Finishing.
Although I was forewarned to expect mold, it got the best of me. When I ripped open the butcher paper surrounding the ham, plumes of green-ashen powdered mold exploded from the package. Caught by the rays of the morning sun, the dust cloud dangled in the light for what seemed like an eternity. When the ash finally settled, I was covered in pungent funk. It was hysterical. After a quick wipe down and clean up, I scrubbed the ham under warm water with a sturdy brush to remove the mold. Luckily, I had an enormous canning pot large enough to accommodate the ham. After plopping it into the pot, I filled it with enough water to cover the ham, maneuvered the lid over the protruding bone (most folks remove the hock), and scooted the ham into a corner of the kitchen to soak for two days, changing the water every 12 hours.
On the third day, I drained off the water and lifted the pot containing the plumped ham onto the stove top. After filling it with cold water, I topped it off with 6 bottles of Ale-8-One soda and a cup of pure maple syrup before cranking the heat to high. When the sweet gingery water came to a boil, I reduced it to a gentle simmer, covered the pot, and let it rip for 5 1/2 hours, about 25 minutes per pound.
When the internal temperature reached 160 degrees, we carefully removed the pot from the heat before wrapping the entire pot with several old quilts to let the ham slowly steep in its own juices overnight. Yep. Overnight. Pig in a blanket. When I was a kid, I knew it was coming on Christmas when the quilted ham blob made its way out to the enclosed back deck for its overnight rest.
The next morning, I carefully removed the ham to a roasting pan and discarded the cooking liquid along a fence row in our backyard. Still hot from the quilted insulation, I removed the skin from the ham and trimmed some off some of the fat.
I lightly scored the soft fat cap on top of the ham, splashed the meat with bourbon, slathered the entire surface with good dijon mustard, and encrusted it with a thin layer of light brown sugar before sliding it into a preheated 400 degree oven.
When the brown sugar dissolved into the mustard and started to caramelize, I pulled the ham from the oven to rest. After letting it rest for 30 minutes, I transferred the ham to a serving platter, scattered a few quartered Red Bartlett pears to the side, and finished with fresh lovage from my garden.
A pure labor of love.
A tender trip to Bountiful.
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Chef Tom’s Food and Cooking Column appears on page 13 of the Ace print edition. Text and Photos by Chef Tom.