Such a Ham

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in: Book Reviews

When I think about the foods associated with Easter, the first thoughts that come to mind are chocolate rabbits, dyed eggs and the infamous marshmallow Peeps. I’ve never given the dinner menu much thought.

I’m sure as a kid I tried to sneak jelly beans on my plate,  calling them a side dish. In my family there was always a ham, like an invited guest, at the Easter dinner. I remember a large pink round of meat with pineapple rings attached to the side with cloves, and a sticky sweet glaze covering the whole thing.  Since it only appeared on the table once a year, and I was more interested in the chocolate bunny, I had never given ham much consideration until I discovered’s recently released “Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter.”

 

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are the authors of nearly 20 cookbooks including the best-selling “Ultimate Series,” a collection of 10 single-subject titles, including “The Ultimate Ice Cream” and “The Ultimate Party Drink.” But what sets this book apart from the others is that it’s not just a collection of recipes, it’s a story book about a subject for which they obviously have a great passion.

Ham book coverDefining the ham, meeting the pig

Before writing this informative and often very funny book, the authors decided they needed to come up with a definition of ham, one to use as a strict guideline.  After consulting culinary resource volumes they settled on: “Composed of four muscle groups, a ham is one back haunch (the butt cheek, if you will) and upper back leg down to the shank (the shin, in butcher parlance) of a pig, boar, shoat, or other porcine-ish animal.”

Weinstein and Scarbrough also felt that to fully understand what they were getting into, they would have to own a pig. Helping the farmer raise their new friend “Wilbur” was one thing, but leading him to slaughter was something different all together. With a healthy new understanding of the fact that meat is “well, meat: muscle and ligament from a living creature,” they discovered a new found respect for the animal.

Dividing the book into four sections, the authors begin with fresh ham, including dozens of recipes ranging from a basic roast with a simple maple-spice glaze and an oven-barbecued style to more international dishes — a Tuscan roasted ham, a Cuban style dinner, even a Filipino twice-cooked pork. An unconventional recipe of Moroccan-style roasted ham involves rubbing the meat with a pungent mixture of coriander, ginger cinnamon and cumin. Probably not the first choice in a Moroccan diet, but Scarbrough promises this treatment is just too good to pass up.

Prosciutto to jamon, dry-cured to wet-cured

The next section explains the differences between dry-cured meats, a fantastic crash course on Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon, Portuguese presunto and the many others from around the world. All of the recipes here sound so good it was hard to pick just one to try. I settled on orecchiette with sage, roasted garlic, cauliflower, and prosciutto — perfect for a cool evening. I roasted the garlic and cauliflower, mixed them with prosciutto, sage and orecchiette, added a splash of wine, some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and in no time at all found I had added a simple and satisfying dinner to my repertoire.

A section on dry-cured ham in the New World covers the country hams from the southern United States, each of which is cured just a little bit differently. Another on wet-cured hams, commonly known as picnic hams and the most popular option for  Easter dinners, potlucks, weddings and even funerals, finishes out this user-friendly volume with full color photography by Marcus Nilsson.

There are recipes for leftovers, side dishes and even cocktails for an impromptu “ham party.” Don’t miss the tester’s notes with tips on carving and equipment, and other information useful for any cook. What I loved most about this book were the authors’ hilarious accounts of traveling to ham producers all over the south, curing meat in their tiny kitchen, trying to get the last 14-pound ham from Wilbur through airport security. “Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter” is a fantastic resource, certain to add a new depth to your library.

“Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter”
By Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95, 223 pages)

Buy Weinstein and Scarborough’s “An Obsession With Ham” Now!

 


Tim Fischermanaged The Cook’s Library in Los Angeles, named one of the “Top 10 Cookbook Stores in the World” by Saveur. He also has been a judge for the IACP Cookbook Awards for four years.

Photo: Spanish ham being sliced. Credit: Manuel Velasco

 

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