Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing support in dozens of sides across the board.
But as a great many of those smart-ass hillbillies from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky–the absolute worst–will tell you (in annoyingly nasal, condescendingly reverential tones), there are hams, and then there are hams.
The best hams are dry cured, usually with a mix of salt and sugar. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced without cooking, but they need to be soaked in water for at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by brine injection. Smoked hams are usually a variant of both, with smoke and brine both providing preservation and flavor.
Then you have the green ham, which is what your old granny called a leg of pork. You’ll find it sold as a “fresh” ham. You may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs of meat you’ve been serving all these years.
A green ham will have a rind over a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife (honest to God, I use a box cutter), and coat with garlic, sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper, and sea salt. Put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions in the bottom of your roaster with enough water to cover. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack.
Place in a hot oven, 450. After thirty minutes, lower to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Let sit for at least an hour before carving.
Ever since the Fall, no food has sparked more controversy than meat: some eschew it and even more restrict it, but meat, for most people, is what’s for dinner. By meat we mean red meat. The USDA considers all meat from livestock red because they contain more myoglobin (aka “red stuff”) than poultry or fish. For most people, this means beef or pork (yes, “the other white meat” is red), though sheep and goat as well game such as venison—and for that matter, whale—fall into the same category. Beef and pork in their various incarnations constitute a significant portion of our diets. An average American consumes 67 lbs. of beef and 51 lbs. of pork annually, most of it at home, meaning that the majority of people buy meat raw and cook it themselves.
Most people do this without a great deal of fuss or bother. A cursory glance at the label is often all that the average shopper needs for a selection. But given the expense and importance of meats, care and discrimination is warranted when it comes to their purchase and preparation. A description of meats demands a language of its own, one based on cuts and quality. While the vocabulary of cuts requires a basic knowledge of quadruped anatomy (leg, back, etc.) in addition to an arcane phraseology stitched largely from antique versions of French and English (brisket and loin, for instance), quality descriptions of meats derive from strict, precise government standards imposed by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Understanding this language requires instruction. Paul Koury, owner and operator of Paul Anthony’s Markets, says, “This business has been a huge teaching process from day one. When I first opened up, almost every customer was looking for a solid red piece of meat with no marbling, and that’s probably going to be your lowest grade,” Paul says. When it comes to the quality of meats, marbling is the key factor. Marbling describes those small streaks of white fat within the red lean muscle that are essential towards making any cut of meat tender and juicy. The degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade. A prime cut will have abundant marbling and a choice cut moderate, while a select cut (the lowest marketed grade) will have only slight marbling, making the meat tough and dry.
“I have a few pieces of choice rib eye that I’ve prepared in a display tray with a prime rib eye to educate people in the difference between the marbling. Less than 3% of all beef in the United States rates a prime grading.” Paul says that supermarket chains are not an ideal place to shop for the best cuts of meat. “Most supermarkets aren’t even cutting their own products locally. Kroger, for instance, has most of their meats cut in Cincinnati and then shipped out.” Paul explains that their reasoning behind this is the liability factor in using saws and other cutting instruments in their stores.
The practice of aging beef is another factor contributing to flavor and tenderness. “All of my prime beef is wet aged, vacuum-sealed in a package in its natural juices. Wet packaged beef will have a stamp that tells me how many days it has been aging since the slaughter. Dry aging is a whole different process,” Paul says. ”Humidity and temperature are keys. Every product is out of the bag with no liquid around it, and the enzymes are breaking down the meat, making for a really rich flavor.” Paul explains that quality pork is the product of a nationwide program in which farmers are raising heirloom breeds of swine without using hormones or strong antibiotics. Sometimes referred to as heirloom or heritage breeds, examples in the marketplace today include Berkshire (also known as Kurobuta, meaning “black pig”), Duroc, and Tamworth “There’s an amazing difference in the taste and tenderness between this pork and what you’d find in most supermarkets,” Paul says. .
Pork has become a “foodie” fad. Dan Blumenthal, chef at Bravo! Restaurant, says, “It’s interesting. I really don’t understand why pork is trendy now. But there’s a lot of pork meat that doesn’t have a lot of fat on it and can be used like veal or chicken; the tenderloin, for example.” Dan points out that some bone-in cuts of meat are also coming back. “They’re introducing cuts with the bone in it, for various reasons. Meat really does taste better if it’s cooked with the bone, and if you cut it right, there’s not that much work to do. I also serve a chicken breast, called the airline breast, with the wing bone still in it,” Dan says. “It’s essentially the drumette once you take the breast off.” When it comes to cooking methods, “You’re going to get the best flavor out of grilling,” Dan says, “but unless your grill is really hot, I’d prefer pan-searing, dry-rubbing the meat and almost “Pittsburgh-ing” it (meat cooked “Pittsburgh style” is charred on the outside and juicy on the inside). I don’t use a dry skillet; you need oil in the skillet to conduct the heat.”
As to a meat sauce, Dan says, “Here is where it gets a little bit tougher. One of the easiest things to do if you’re cooking meat is to take the pan juices and reduce them with a little red wine if it’s a dark meat or white wine if it’s a light meat, then finish with butter. Short of that, if you’re grilling, for instance, you’re going to need some sort of stock,” Dan says, “and unless you can get veal bones and you know how to make a beef stock, most people can use a lighter or darker chicken stock and get away with it, and chicken bones are pretty easy to come by. Brown the bones in the oven with seasonings and aromatic vegetables, then add liquids to complete the stock. You’re not going to get something that’s as rich and dark (as a veal stock), but it might suffice, especially if you cook it down and add red wine or a little tomato paste.”
Then there are marinades and dry rubs. “Marinades flavor and tenderize meat,” Dan says. “A marinade normally incorporates an acid, which is a natural tenderizer, whether the acid is wine or vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice. For a tougher piece of meat you’d want the marinade to penetrate more. But if you’re cooking a rare piece of meat, and the marinade penetrates too far, the acid will cook the meat, and it will soak up the marinade like a sponge, giving the meat a different texture. Dry rubs are another excellent way to flavor meat,” Dan says. “You always want salt and pepper; something with a little heat, like different types of peppers, then some dried herbs like rosemary, oregano or fennel as well as powdered onion, garlic and paprika.” Dan recommends that any cut of meat, once cooked, should rest for a few minutes before carving or cutting.
12 oz. pork tenderloin, sliced into 6 medallions and pounded thinly 6 thin slices prosciutto 6 large fresh sage leaves
Dredge pork in all-purpose flour seasoned with salt and black pepper. Arrange 1 prosciutto slice over pork. Top with 1 sage leaf and spear with a wooden pick. Heat about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan, add pork and brown lightly. Remove pork; add about a tablespoon of finely chopped shallots and a teaspoon of garlic. Add about 1/4 cup each white wine and chicken stock to pan, cook until reduced by about half, finish with about a tablespoon unsalted butter. Arrange pork on a warm plate and drizzle with pan juices. Serve immediately.