Hamming it up for Easter

By Dana Zia

“The Easter ham holds the same place of honor on the dinner table that milady’s hat does in the Easter Parade.” Mary Meade

My earliest memories of Easter are waking up with great anticipation to the Easter basket filled with green plastic grass, jelly bean eggs and the glorious chocolate egg. It was a wonder, but not nearly the wonder of my mother’s Easter brunch with the juicy fat ham in the center of the table glowing like an angel.

Ham became the center piece at the Easter feast a way long time ago. Back when Easter was a party to honor the Saxon Goddess Eastre and the return of spring, the ham smoked that fall was brought to the feast table to celebrate yet another winter of not starving to death. It was sure to bring you good luck and a fertile spring. In early America, where pork was plentiful, this tradition that was still a hang over from the pagans was enthusiastically embraced. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The real wonder about ham is how many varieties there are of them! One almost needs divine guidance to choose a ham for your holiday table with the dizzying amount of choices there are. It is much easier to cook one than pick one out. Well I’ve got my angel wings on and am here to take the confusion out of this simple meal.

First off, let’s start with the basics; a ham is the upper hind leg of a pig that has been cured, one way or the other. A whole ham is around 14-16 pounds and that’s a lot of meat, so they are generally split into two halves, the shank and the butt. The shank is the end closest to the knee and the butt is…well I think you can figure that out.

All hams are cured to preserve the meat through a process of adding things like sugar, salt, nitrates or smoke. There are two major types of curing ham, wet or dry cure. The wet cured hams are called “city hams”. These comprise the majority of hams we see in the super market. They are produced by either submerging the ham in salty brine for a period of time till the salt has penetrated deep into the meat. Or there are the more inexpensive hams that have been injected with brine for much faster production. City hams are usually fully cooked and smoked.

Then there are the “country hams” AKA Virginia style hams, which are dry cured by rubbing the brine all over them then letting them hang to dry for months in a carefully controlled environment. (Think prosciutto and those musky Italian meats we all know and love.) These hams are either smoked or not, but all country hams are sold “raw” and need to be cooked. Country hams are more popular in the southern United States. (Good luck finding one up here! I tried.)

Since most hams that we come in contact with are city hams, let’s focus on them. City hams come in four categories depending on how much water has been added to them. Intentionally injecting water to the ham bulks up the ham’s weight thereby greatly increasing the profit margins. The amount of water added to a city ham directly affects its flavor. In many taste tests, the no water added hams always scored the highest.

1) “Ham” pure ham, no water added. The best option. Try to find one with the bone in. It adds more flavor.
2) “Ham in natural juices” This is a bit confusing as it sounds like it isn’t tampered with but actually has up to 10% extra water added. These hams are actually pretty good and cook up nice a juicy, not a bad option.
3) “Ham with water added” This ham has up to 15% water added. The water percentage will be on the label, usually in fine print. Now you’re getting a highly processed ham that is losing its flavor.
4) “Ham and water product” This is the free for all ham, processed to the fullest letter of the law. This ham can have up to 50% water. This ham is yucky, do not buy.

There are a few more things to consider in this Easter ham primer; which end of the ham to buy and precut or not? Some people prefer the shank end since it has a higher fat content, but I prefer the butt end as it is leaner meat and the “meatier” part of the ham. I found out that hardly any ham is labeled which end is which but a butcher informed me that you can tell by feeling the package. (I’ll leave the rest of that one alone!)

Ah to buy precut or not? This option is pretty much not an option at the coast. The only bone in, pure ham I could find was at Costco and it was spiral cut. One of the draw backs of living in this lovely place. If you have the option, I would suggest an uncut ham as they cook up juicer but a sliced ham cooks up just fine if you do it right. This recipe I am sharing today is a delicious way to cook any style of ham and ensures that a sliced ham doesn’t dry out. Enjoy the wonder of Easter and spring with this festive ham.

Bourbon-Orange Glazed Easter Ham
Feel free to use your imagination on the marmalade. I ended up using a ginger-orange marmalade and it was delicious! You can use a roasting bag instead of the foil, maybe a better option for a pre-cut ham.

3/4 cups of a high quality orange marmalade
1/4 cup of pure maple syrup
1/4 cup of whole grain mustard
1/4 cup of bourbon of dark rum
The juice and zest of one orange
6-8 whole cloves
1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary
Crank or two of black pepper
1 smoked half of a city ham, 7-9 pounds, preferably bone in

In a small sauce pan, mix up all but the ham. (It would be hard to fit the ham in there I guess) Heat up the sauce mix over medium high heat mixing often till it starts to bubble. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer till the sauce, stirring now and then, till it is reduced in half and coats the back of spoon nicely, about 20mins. Let cool.

Before you turn on your trusty oven, position a rack in the lower third of the oven, then preheat to 325 degrees. While the oven heats up line a high rimmed baking dish with foil. Place the ham in the baking dish and carefully baste it with a 1/2 cup of the glaze. Tent the ham with foil where it is well sealed and tuck in the oven to cook for 2 1/2 hours, roughly, till the internal temperature of the ham is 125 degrees. (18 minutes per pound)

Take out of the oven and peel back the foil to reveal your masterpiece. Raise the temperature of the oven to 425 degrees and while it is heating up, brush the ham with 1/4 of the remaining glaze and return to the oven. Bake for 5 minutes, then brush again with glaze, repeat two more times for a total of 20 minutes of baking. Keep a close eye on that piggy as this is either your moment of glory or when you can burn the heck out of it. Remove the ham from the oven and let it set! I know you want to try it, refrain! Let it rest for at least 20 minutes to 2 hours before slicing. Hoppy Easter!

For more recipes like this from Dana Zia, go to www.cavewomancafe.com.