Season for ham

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Next weekend is Easter — April 1 — and I’m confident most of the home cooks are already planning their Easter meal for family.

I’ve never really understood why ham is served at Easter but there it is — right in the middle of the table. I’ve heard everything from it’s a Christian meat — I didn’t know there was such a thing — able to be consumed by Christians but not certain other prominent religious groups. The truth actually makes a lot of sense. The real reason ham is served at Easter is it’s season. While modern food storage techniques and supermarkets with efficient and worldwide supply chains shield Americans from this fact somewhat, like fruits and vegetables, different meats also have seasons, depending on a variety of factors including what the animals were eating and when, where they were in their growth cycle and the availability (or lack) of refrigeration.

With pigs and cows — before refrigeration — it simply made sense to slaughter them in the fall. Since it takes a fair amount of time to butcher a beast as large as a hog or steer, the cold temperatures helped keep the meat from going bad before it could be properly prepared.

Another consideration was taste. Shortly before slaughter in the fall, hogs were fed things like apples and acorns that greatly improved the flavor of the meat they ultimately provided.

Butchered in the fall, most hams were prepared and allowed to properly cure over the winter to further develop their flavor. This was a particularly important food source this time of year in some parts of the world where the rest of the stored meat would have already been eaten — with little other meat of any real quality available. 

This was the case in North America where the other traditional spring meat — lamb, was (and still is) less in vogue.  This is why eating ham on Easter in North America is much more popular than other regions where Easter is celebrated.

I love the taste of lamb and we frequently enjoyed it when living in Savannah. It was easy to prepare thanks to the Big Green Egg. There was an active Greek Orthodox population in Savannah and I learned from attending many of their festivals why lamb is prepared at Easter. 

The tradition actually traces its origins to Jewish Passover feasts. This is also certainly fitting for Easter, with Jesus as the lamb of God.Born shortly before the holiday, young lamb may be slaughtered within six to eight weeks, thus offer a fresh —  as opposed to cured — option for Easter protein when historically other such protein sources were scarce at this time of year.

Before you can serve the ham to your family, choosing the one which best suits your needs is, of course, vital.

There are two main types of hams — country and city . 

Country hams are typically sold uncooked, while city hams come pre-cooked and may be spiral-sliced. City hams make up the majority of what you’ll find in the grocery store. Each ham also comes either bone-in or boneless. Boneless hams will be a bit easier to serve, while bone-in hams are believed to impart added flavor. 

We often purchased a country ham if we were traveling through Tennessee, Virginia or Kentucky. Country hams are salt-cured (with or without nitrites) for one to three months. They are usually hardwood smoked but some types of country ham, such as the “salt-and-pepper ham” of North Carolina, are not smoked. They are aged for several months to three years, depending on the fat content of the meat.

Country hams are not fully cooked, but preserved by the cure. They are usually sold in stores unrefrigerated as whole, bone-in hams packaged in rough cotton bags, with identifying markings printed on the bags. 

Most everyone I know always serves a city ham. Before cooking, you need to select one. But how do you know how much ham to buy for your guests? It’s easy. Count on ¾ pound per person for a bone-in ham and ½ pound per person for a boneless ham. If you have 20 guests, you need a 10-pound boneless ham. 

The most common way to prepare a ham is by roasting it using a roasting pan. The size pan you’ll need depends on how big your ham is, but it should be able to fit comfortably without touching the sides. The depth or side height is also important; one that is too shallow increases the likelihood of hot splashes. For this reason, the side height should be about 3-4 inches for a standard-sized ham. In general, use a roasting pan that’s 9 x 3 x 13.

Use a meat thermometer. Most hams come pre-cooked, so you wouldn’t think you’d need a meat thermometer. However, with large hams it’s hard to tell when the meat is warm enough, That’s when a meat thermometer comes in handy.

Glazing a ham is a quick and easy way to impart extra flavor. Glaze your ham near the end of its cook time  — usually the last 30 minutes. It’s also helpful to cut a criss-cross diamond pattern into the top of your ham before glazing; this ensures the glaze soaks all the way through, making the meat extra tender, juicy and full of flavor. 

     My grandmother Katherine Roberts  cut the outside of a ham in diagonals,  and stuck cloves on it as well as cherries or pineapple on it. 

Finally, what is Easter without deviled eggs? I am so jealous of those of you who are using an Instant Pot because I’m told it makes the best hard-boiled eggs. Give the recipe a try.