Norman Van Aken, the Miami chef and restaurateur, will spend Easter weekend in Key West this year with family, he said, in the town where his career began. On the menu: “Ham for a horde.”
“It’s an old Key West recipe that we put a spin on with a rum and sugar and black pepper glaze,” he said. “A fresh ham cooked low and slow until we add the paint at the end.”
Wait, a fresh ham?
“A fresh ham,” Van Aken said.
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Americans are starting to break free of the smokehouse, to move beyond the salt-cured hams of Easters past, thinking beyond pink. Fresh ham makes for an elegant — but not at all fancy — holiday centerpiece, a roast that holds none of the freight associated with roast beef (so expensive!), turkey (again?) or the traditional pink ham of the season (at its worst both watery and dry). It is not as nondenominational as lamb, to be sure. But for many, a fresh ham is a herald of spring.
Cured ham for Easter is a legacy of our days before refrigeration, said Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College, who is also the writer of the “Food as a Lens” blog. “Rural folks would slaughter a hog in early winter to provide an abundance of food for the holidays,” he said, “with plenty of fresh pork for Christmas and New Year’s. They put up the hams for curing.”
Curing a ham takes a few months. A ham taken off a hog in December would be ready in April, Opie said, just in time to provide a rejoinder to a few months of stews and soups. For much of the nation, for much of its history, a ham was the first big hunk of meat on the table since the turn of the year. “Community work for community food,” Opie called it.
“And a cured ham is great,” said Bruce Weinstein, who with his husband, Mark Scarbrough, wrote “Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter,” in 2010. “But a fresh ham is my favorite thing, the best pork roast you’ve ever had in your life.”
“It’s a very lean piece of meat,” Weinstein added. “People think fat. But all the fat is external. What’s great about roasting a fresh ham for a long time in a low oven is that all that beautiful exterior fat bastes that lean, tender meat, and you end up with this luxurious roast at its culinary best.”
This is demonstrably true, especially if you cook one of Fox’s Tamworth or Old Spot hams and even if you pick up a plastic-wrapped haunch from the supermarket.
Recipes for fresh ham abound across the unregulated wilds of the Internet, many of them calling for brining the meat for days before cooking it, in coolers or compound buckets set into your refrigerator. There is not a great deal of intramuscular fat in a ham, the argument goes, so brining the meat adds juiciness to what might otherwise go dry in the oven.
But many food professionals disagree with the practice. Harold Moore, the chef at Commerce in the West Village, is one of them. (Van Aken is another.) The ham is too large to brine effectively, Moore said. “Brining just adds water to the outside inch or so of the meat. You’re not going to get much flavor out of that.”
Better, he said, to “leave the roast out for a couple hours, so it’s not so cold when you roast it.” And when you do, he added, “put it in a cold oven and set the oven and let the heat come up slow.”
It is easy, however, to make a fresh ham amazing. Nick Anderer, the chef at the pork-mad Maialino in Manhattan, said he had submerged a fresh ham in a kettle with a brining liquid, and cooked it in a commercial oven for three hours at 190 degrees. He adapted the recipe from a brine championed by Cleveland cooking sage and author Michael Ruhlman. Then he pulls out the poached ham, scores the fat, paints on a honey glaze with mustard and garlic, and roasts the skin to perfect crispness and intensity of flavor in a hotter oven.
“That’s pretty fun,” he said, which is what professional chefs always say when they tell you about incredibly cool cooking techniques that involve their giant pots and pans and massive ovens that can roast and steam at once.
An easier route to fresh-ham perfection involves simply scoring the skin of the ham in a diamond pattern, then rubbing a mixture of salt and pepper all over the skin, pressing it down into the fat between the cuts. Place the ham on a rack either in a very hot oven or one that is going in that direction, as Moore suggested, and allow it to roast for 30 minutes or so, until the skin has begun to crisp and the fat has started to run. (Don’t have a rack? Moore to the rescue: “Just cut a few onions in half and let that be the rack, maybe with some whole heads of garlic cut in half as well.”)
Then turn the heat in the oven down to 350 and allow the meat to roast slowly, basting on the hour with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, maple syrup and cinnamon, as well as with the fat in the bottom of the pan. The rind will grow crisper and darker along the way. When the meat has reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees, pull it from the oven to rest. The temperature will continue to rise as it does.
As the ham sits, make a simple gravy out of the juices remaining in the pan, and serve it in a gravy boat alongside the meat. Then dress the ham with a shower of ground toasted pecans and crystallized ginger — these provide a brightness and heat that nicely complement the bark of the skin and the luscious meat beneath it.
Accompany with side dishes that evoke the changing season. This year, for me, that means baked beans from the New England larder that nod to the sweetness of the glaze, and a colorful slaw that evokes springtime while using up the last of the winter cabbages and the pickling liquid from some fancy store-bought pickles.
The most important thing is to make sure you assemble enough people to share in the feast.
FRESH HAM WITH MAPLE-BALSAMIC GLAZE
Serves 10 to 12
1 10- to 12-pound butt or shank portion fresh ham, skin on
4 teaspoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 cup maple syrup
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup pecans, toasted
½ cup candied ginger
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Using a sharp knife, score entire surface of ham in a diamond pattern, cutting down just through the skin to the flesh underneath. (If you are cutting to the right depth, the skin will spread apart a bit as you cut.) Rub outside of ham all over with salt and pepper, pressing it into crosshatch spaces between the skin. Put roast on a rack in a large roasting pan and place in oven.
2. After 20 minutes, reduce oven to 300 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and cinnamon. Baste ham hourly with mixture, as well as with fat from the bottom of the pan, roasting until the very center of the ham reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees, 2½ to 3 hours total cooking time. (Begin checking at two hours, inserting a meat thermometer into the absolute center of the roast.)
3. Put the toasted pecans and candied ginger into a food processor and pulse lightly until crumbled and well combined.
4. When ham is done, remove it from roasting pan, shower with pecan-ginger mixture and cover it loosely with foil. Allow the meat to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. (Its internal temperature will rise to 150 or more as it rests.)
5. Tip roasting pan to the side so you can spoon off all the fat from the pan juices, then place pan on stove over medium-high heat. Scrape the bottom of pan to free any browned bits, skim any film off surface and season liquid as needed with salt and pepper. Pour into a gravy boat.
6. Carve ham into thick slices, drizzle with pan sauce and serve, passing remaining sauce on the side.
Serves 6 to 8
2 cups navy beans
½ pound slab bacon, cut into cubes
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
3 cup molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Soak beans in a large bowl of water for six hours or overnight. Drain beans and put them in a large oven-safe pot with a heavy bottom and a tightfitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and enough cool water to cover 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just tender, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and remove beans.
2. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Bring a kettle full of water to a boil on the stove. Return the heavy-bottomed pot to the stove and turn the heat to medium high. Cook the bacon in the bottom of the pot until it begins to brown, then turn off the heat and add the chopped onion and, on top of it, the beans. Mix together molasses, mustard and black pepper, and add the mixture to the pot. Pour in enough boiling water to cover beans, put the lid on and bake, occasionally adding more water to keep beans covered, until they are tender but not falling apart, four to five hours.
3. Remove beans from oven, uncover, stir and season with salt. With the lid off, return pot to oven and let beans finish cooking, uncovered and without additional water, until the sauce has thickened and the top is deeply crusty, about 45 minutes more.
Serves 6 to 8
1 small head green cabbage
1 small head red cabbage
2 carrots, peeled and grated
2 tart apples, like Granny Smith, peeled and cut into matchsticks
½ cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade or Hellmann’s
3 tablespoons juice from a pickle jar, or of pickle relish
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons pepper sauce, like Frank’s, or to taste
Ground black pepper
1. Cut the cabbages in half and remove the core from each side. Cut each half in half and slice each resulting quarter into thin ribbons. Mix with carrots and apples in a large nonreactive bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.
3. Pour the dressing over the cabbage and toss. Season to taste. The coleslaw may be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Toss again before serving.