THE GOCHISO GOURMET: What a ham!

“How do you take a sick pig to the hospital?”
“In a hambulance!”

“What did the pig say when he was sick?”
“Call the hambulance!”

OK, I’m not talkin’ about that kind of ham. The ham that I’m speakin’ of is of the cured pork persuasion: Savory, salty and useful in a wide range of culinary applications, including sandwiches, appetizers, side dishes, main courses and even simply as a seasoning agent. We’re not talking about all things pork today, but simply the cured hindquarters, which is known as ham.

The Basic Ham
I’m sure that everyone is familiar with your basic ham found in the supermarket that either came from a can or sealed in shrink wrap in the chill case. Most of these originate from the hind leg of the pig, though some hams originate from the foreleg or shoulder of the pig, and are usually labeled as picnic hams. Hams can be considered fresh if they are uncured or can also be found cured and uncooked, in the case of country hams.

Sometimes they are smoked and sometimes they are simply flavored with artificial smoke flavor. And they often are cured with a sweetening agent such as brown sugar or honey to cover some of saltiness from the brining solution. And when it comes to your gourmet hams, they are often spiral sliced so that all you need is a single knife stroke to create perfect slices for your guests.

As a child, I never really cared for the supermarket variety of ham, mainly because I found them too salty and often when prepped improperly, a bit dry. Most of my ham consumption was in the form Hawai‘i’s favorite SPiced hAM, Spam, which really isn’t ham at all, and is a multi-page dissertation unto itself. The other ham routinely consumed was provided by Oscar Meyer in the form of deli-sliced cold cuts in sandwiches. And then I sampled a Honey Baked Ham from Geary Boulevard and said, “Whoa!” Sweet, savory, not too salty, not too smoky but juuuust right!

Of course, since then, I’ve also discovered the joys of slow cooked ham that simply shreds after hours of low-heat cooking. Spiced with brown sugar, maple syrup, a touch of pineapple juice and mustard, then stuffed into a soft potato roll, it certainly rivals that smoked, pulled pork and slaw sandwich!

The Other Ham
About 25 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally relented and allowed that luscious Italian ham, prosciutto, back into the United States. Like all hams, prosciutto originates from the hind leg of the pig, but unlike other hams, the only ingredient other than the pig itself is sea salt. And Adriatic breezes. And time. After the salted leg is rested in refrigerated cells for two months to lose excess moisture, the excess salt is washed off and the ham begins a one to three year process of aging in the Adriatic breezes to produce either prosciutto di Parma in central Italy or prosciutto San Daniele in northern Italy. The resulting ham is usually sliced paper thin and wrapped over fresh melon or figs or simply served as is with hard cheeses and Balsamico. They have a velvety, silky texture and are sweeter than your basic ham, with just a touch of game. This Old World process is replicated domestically, but the imported variety have a silkier texture, aren’t as salty and have a better flavor than the domestic varieties … of course they do cost a lot more, but believe me, they are worth the price.

Prosciutto also has a cousin that is revered just as much, if not more, and its name is Culatello. Culatello is basically the meatiest portion of the hind leg that is boned, cured — often with red wine — then placed in a pig’s bladder and hung like prosciutto to age for one to two years. The resulting boneless ham is then thinly sliced and served like prosciutto, though I find that it has a richer flavor profile than prosciutto and it’s a lot more savory. Whereas prosciutto is refined, culatello is rustic. But it is harder to find since those health inspectors in the European Union don’t always consider the production conditions very sanitary since the ageing rooms foster the growth of mold. But it’s these molds (like the mold covering salami or cheeses) that remove moisture and facilitates the ageing of the ham. And the last time I checked, I don’t believe there’s been any culatello food poisoning over the past several hundred years.

 

Iberico Bellota. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Iberico Bellota. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Spanish Ham
I originally thought that Italian prosciutto was the pinnacle of ham until I tried jamon Serrano or dry-cured Spanish ham, which like prosciutto, is salt-cured and air-dried for six to 18 months and also served sliced paper thin with an assortment of cheeses and pickled peppers. It’s oilier and gamier than prosciutto, and the perfect pair with Rioja wine. Tasting it then led me to jamon iberico or dry cured ham produced only from the black-footed Iberian pigs. Since these black-footed pigs aren’t as abundant as the white pigs used in jamon Serrano, the cost for jamon iberico correspondingly is a lot higher, though the final ham has a richer flavor profile. Because the price of jamon iberico is a lot more, the ham is cured with the black hoof of the animal intact to “prove” that you’re not purchasing an imposter animal. Tasting jamon iberico then led me to the crème de la crème of dry cured hams — jamon iberico bellota, or free-range black-footed pigs that gorge themselves on nothing but wild acorns. It’s as rich as ham gets with fat that literally melts in your mouth. It’s said that since acorns contain a high percentage of oleic acid (the fat in olive oil), iberico bellota ham has a lower ratio of saturated to monounsaturated fat than usual pork products. Even with great prosciutto, as I chew the ham, I can detect when I’m chewing on meat versus fat. With the iberico bellota, the texture between the meat and fat on the palate is almost seamless. I don’t know how the live iberico bellota animals don’t simply melt as they graze on acorns, since the finished product simply melts on the palate! But of course this kind of quality comes with a steep price as jamon iberico bellota makes even the best prosciutto seem cheap by comparison

Other Air Cured Hams
Between the Italian and Austrian border, the region of Tyrol produces Speck, which is a juniper and salt cured ham that’s then smoked. Unlike prosciutto or Serrano hams, Speck comes from the pork shoulder and is deboned before curing. And the final product often is used in the regional cooking often in place of bacon. Because the juniper flavor (juniper is the major spice in gin) is apparent (and gin is my favorite distilled beverage), I simply consume it the way I would a fine prosciutto, thinly sliced with a variety of cheeses and fruit.

There is also one distinct domestically produced ham that is a favorite in the South. Smithfield or country ham is a cured, uncooked, air-dried ham from either the fore or hind leg and can be smoked or unsmoked. After curing and drying, most applications call for cooking, though there’s no reason why it can’t be consumed like prosciutto or Serrano ham. It is a lot saltier than prosciutto or Serrano ham, so that may be a reason why most people don’t consume it as is. But the salt can act like a seasoning for stewed greens and soups but unlike plain table salt, country ham also adds porky goodness to the dish.

Ham Applications
I usually keep one or two packages of domestic prosciutto in my refrigerator that I use in cooking applications. Again, they not only add salt to the finished dish, but contribute that savory, porky flavor. And the sky’s the limit! Cooked veggies. Check. Mashed potatoes. Check. Mac and cheese or pasta sauces. Check. Crisp pan-fried as a salad topping. Check. And my neighborhood market also carries pre-diced domestic prosciutto that you can simply open and add to any dish. No more struggling trying to separate those paper thin slices.

Or if you really want to guild the lily, try my Green Eggs and Ham as a substitute for the basic Eggs Benedict. Top a toasted muffin with four to five slices of prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto San Daniele, bunching the thin slices to form a “well” in the middle. Gently place a poached egg in the “well,” then top with a Green Goddess dressing in place of the usual Hollandaise sauce. It’s great for brunch, even better for dinner. Mangia mangia!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

Speak Your Mind

*

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification