Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Cook for her (for a change)

Celebrating a special day for Moms is so much a part of our national culture; it is a little surprising to remember that it has only been an official observation since 1914. Originally, the commemoration on the second Sunday in May had a particularly patriotic focus, “as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those Mothers whose sons had died in war.”

The spirit of the occasion has mostly evolved into an occasion to simply celebrate motherhood and family.  (Not that there is anything simple about motherhood and family).  One of the unique customs that I can recall from my ever more distant childhood was that the guys of our family always wore carnation boutonnieres to church on Mother’s Day.  Even though I was quite young, my dad carefully explained the tradition of the colors of the flowers; red if one’s mother is living, white if deceased. 

The other “big deal’ was a wonderful meal prepared by my mom or grandmother.  Although it was not noted at the time, the idea that Mom has to cook a labor intensive meal on her special day now seems a little incongruous.  Hence the theme for this post, you do the cooking for her this time.

The menu that we have selected is creative and colorful, yet still easy enough for most dads to accomplish, maybe even with some help from younger family members.  Recipes can be found on the Avanti Savoia website and many of the ingredients are available through Avanti Savoia, as well.

Bruschetta (pronounced brus’ketta) is a simple yet savory appetizer that has been enjoyed in Italy for centuries.  The basic recipe calls for slices of good bread to be lightly grilled or toasted under the broiler, rubbed with garlic and then generously drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Change this up a little bit by adding a dollop of Lowcountry Tomato Sauce, a few capers, a pinch of Don Vito’s Gold Italian Herb Blend and grated Parmesan cheese – really easy and delicious!

Cold, creamy, pink and sweet; this is the perfect springtime soup for Mom.  Ripe strawberries team up with yogurt, blush wine and just a touch of orange, vanilla and sugar for a dreamy soup that could almost be a dessert.  White grape and strawberry juice is a good substitution for the wine if you wish to exclude the alcohol.

Hmm…Grilled Lamb Chops in the merry month of May should appeal to any mom that appreciates the succulent flavor of lamb.  Ask your butcher to “French” the chops for you if it sounds like too much trouble.  It just means to scrape the meat and tissue away from the top of the bone.  The process doesn’t alter the flavor; but the presentation just looks a little neater. The Bruschetta and the lamb can be cooked on the same standard grill outside or on a grill pan inside.

The lamb chops are seasoned with a traditional mix of olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, mustard and herbs before grilling.  They are then served on a fragrant bed of vegetables, herbs and olives that can be made well ahead of the grilling.  Offered on a plate highlighted by the beautiful Golden Rice Pilaf will have mom believing that you are a gourmet chef! 

Just in case Mom is a vegetarian or does not particularly enjoy lamb, the menu can easily be altered to suit her taste, as well.  Drop the lamb chops, substitute vegetable stock for the beef stock in the Aromatic Vegetables and just serve the Golden Rice Pilaf with the vegetables.  Sprinkle it with some toasted almonds if you like and Mom the vegetarian should be perfectly happy.

Yes, of course you can easily buy a good commercial pound cake.  However, our Lemon Lime Pound Cake is an heirloom recipe provided by our stellar cook of a grandmother, Clara Lowery. It seems absolutely perfect to share with other Mothers and Grandmothers on Mother’s Day.  My brother, Catering Chef David Lowery of Austin, Texas swears by this recipe and has served it at many events.  He reports that his clients especially enjoy the cake as the basis for petite fours and even as a wedding cake.  Our idea is a little less ambitious, just an easy pound cake baked in a Bundt, tube or loaf pan.  For chocolate lovers, it’s tasty to dress it up with a little splash of Leaning Oaks Chocolate Sauce.

Many restaurants offer nice Mother’s day events, but they will be crowded for sure.   Instead, just imagine how touched your mom or wife would be by something really special.  Don’t put it off, show her your love! We know that your cooking efforts will be sincerely appreciated by the mothers in your life and we hope that our menu suggestions and recipes will be a real help for you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

HAM for EASTER: Postscript

A long history

…stormy and rainy
For scheduling reasons our Easter celebration had to happen the Sunday before Easter.  Rather than bright springtime weather, the day was stormy and rainy. However, it did little to dampen the spirits of our guests, Gary Elgin, Scott and Janice Tocher and my wife’s youngest son, Rodney Rohrback.  The basic menu was listed in the previous post, but at the last moment we decided to substitute the kind and preparation of the ham.
…plans do change
Although it was my intention at our Easter feast to serve a “city” ham that I smoked myself over wild cherry wood, plans do change.  A gift of a beautiful, traditional Tennessee Country Ham from Avanti Savoia’s founder, Doug Slocum, changed all that. (Doug, by the way, has been experimenting himself with home cured pork tenderloins for his own use).
…the history and lore of hams
The change in menu also offered me the opportunity to perfect the preparation of the unique “country” ham and delve deeper into the history and lore of hams in general.
Pork has had a prominent place on American menus since the Seventeenth Century. It is the cured hind legs, single pieces of hind legs or shoulders that are used to make what we usually think of as ham.  Hams from the front legs are called Picnic Hams.

Just for the sake of information, here are some brief definitions of various hams.
Old Fashioned Country Ham – Hams of this tradition are produced throughout the “ham belt” of the Southern states (particularly Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia). Methods and procedures vary from producer to producer and from region to region.  Country Hams are prepared with a salt cure and usually nitrates, sugar and pepper. Typically, they are then smoked over hardwood and then aged from 2 to 3 years. They are commonly sold whole with bone-in, but also come in pre-sliced pieces that are vacuum packed.
Smithfield Hams – These are indeed old fashioned country hams as well, but by law a ham can only be sold as a Smithfield Ham if it processed in Smithfield, Virginia, utilizing the Smithfield method.  This method entails a dry salt cure followed by a pepper coating, hickory smoking and a lengthy aging process.  The hams are produced from a particular breed of hog and are fed a specific diet.
Smithfield “type” or old Virginia Hams – These are hams processed in much the same way as authentic Smithfield’s but are produced outside of Smithfield and cannot be labeled as such.
Tasso “Ham” – A spicy Cajun specialty that strictly speaking, is not even ham. Chunks of pork (or sometimes beef) are highly seasoned and hot smoked for 2 or more days.  In cooking, Tasso is finely chopped and used to flavor many Louisiana dishes.
Commercial, mass marketed American Ham – Before any sort of processing occurs the meat may be referred to as fresh ham.  Generally however, most of these hams are cured using a dry method, sweet-pickling method or even more commonly, injection cured.  These methods are also sometimes combined.  Commercial hams, after curing can also be smoked and aged.  This manner of ham can be sold as fully cooked and also partially cooked.  Labeling and package instructions should be carefully read and followed. 
Canadian bacon - Although it is called “bacon” this product is more akin to ham.  It is taken from the eye of the loin, pre cooked and smoked.
Italian Ham (Prosciutto) – Prosciutto is only one of many famous cured pork products from Italy. Versions of “Prosciutto” are now being produced in America, although Prosciutto from Italy is the true Prosciutto.  Authentic Italian Prosciutto is salt cured and air dried, but not smoked and contains no nitrates or preservatives.  Prosciutto Cruda di Parma is more salty and less fatty, while Prosciutto di San Daniele is less salty, fattier and contains less moisture. Quality Prosciutto can be purchased through many specialty markets.  Cut and served in extremely thin slices, it is delicious with melon and figs and also lightly cooked as a component in a variety of Italian dishes.   
Spanish Ham (Jamon Iberico) – This is the high quality traditional dry-cured Spanish ham that is produced from a black pig (Pata Negra) native to the Iberian region.  There are several varieties distinguished by the diet of the pigs.  Similar in flavor to Prosciutto, they each have their own unique subtleties.  It is appearing in American restaurants specializing in Tapas.  There is also a lower quality ham known as Jamon Serrano.
French Ham (Jambon de Bayonne) – Produced near the town of Bayonne in the Basses-Pyrenees, this is the French version of cured ham.  A unique traditional curing method makes this ham a sought after delicacy.  It is very pink in color and low in sodium.
German Ham (Westphalian Ham) – These hams are produced from pigs fed on acorns in the Westphalia forest of Germany. They are seasoned with several herbs and spices and then slow smoked over beech and juniper woods. These dark hams with a light smoky taste are similar to the Black Forest Ham.
British Isles – There are also small production of styles variously know as York, Scotch, Irish and Gammon.

...pork curing and preserving
Now then, back to our story of American Country Hams. Early immigrants to America certainly brought their knowledge of pork curing and preserving with them to the new world, where Native Americans were already skilled at salt curing and the smoking of venison.
…a long history in the Southern Appalachian Mountains
The tradition of cured pork also has a long history in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  The author Wilma Dykeman, until her death in 2006, was the Official Historian of the State of Tennessee.  In her book, The French Broad, she comments on the importance of the “hog” culture of this area.
“…hog and hominy state”
 “… corn carried as fat on the ribs of hogs and fowls was most easily transported along the muddy, winding roads of the nineteenth century, and was finally most easily sold as fresh meat to the cotton plantation owners and tenants in the lowlands but by far the greatest traffic of this era was in hogs, and most of the hogs were from Tennessee.  In the census of 1840 Tennessee was the greatest corn-producing state in the Union.  Her nickname became the ‘hog and hominy’ state, and production of the two went together just that closely. Corn brought the best price when it became pork. It was estimated… that between 150,000 and 175,000 Tennessee hogs were driven up the French Broad (river) every year…”  
…one that was just about perfect and another that was almost inedible
There are two basic cures for ham – wet and dry.  All Country Hams are dry cured. Country Hams are available either whole or sliced and vacuum packed.  The sliced variety served fried is the way Country Ham is most available in Southern restaurants.  I find personally that the sliced fried ham is just too tough and salty for my taste, although the old timers swear by it.   The truth of the matter is that up until now I have only cooked two whole country hams in my life, one that was just about perfect and another that was almost inedible. 
…even a well prepared Country Ham is always salty
To ensure success this time, I was determined to learn as much about these unique hams as possible.  Fortunately, our third ham (the one pictured on this post) looked good and tasted wonderful. However, even a well prepared Country Ham is always salty and has a distinctive gamey or high flavor that is not for everyone.
…something akin to boot leather
Once upon a time, the illness Trichinosis was a great concern and prompted cooks of an earlier generation to over-cook pork to something akin to boot leather.  Today’s government standards ensure that commercially cured ham is free of the micro parasites that cause this disease.  To be sure, it is recommended that pork be cooked to reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees.
…soak the meat for a full 48 hours    
Due to the aging process, Country Hams may be covered with mold, however this is harmless.  When you are ready to begin the preparation process; remove the ham’s cloth covering and scrub the ham’s surface under warm running water until it is clean.  Next and this is paramount, soak the entire ham in cold water with a splash of vinegar.  Instructions that I have encountered recommend soaking for a few hours up to overnight.  The soaking not only helps remove some of the salt, but also softens the ham.  My recommendation is to soak the meat for a full 48 hours, changing the water after the first 24 hours.  A large ice chest proved perfect for this chore.
Some cooks like to save it for seasoning…
After soaking, but before cooking, it is practical to trim away the crusty, hard surfaces of the meat not covered by fat.  This “face” as it is sometimes known, is much too hard to eat and makes carving difficult, as well.  Some cooks like to save it for seasoning, but I find that there are always plenty of scraps leftover anyway, and I think that they taste better than the external pieces.  A little seasoning with Country Ham goes a long way for my taste.
…I prefer simmering
The ham can now be cooked in the oven, either by braising (simmering) or baking.  I believe that I prefer simmering.  For this particular ham, we placed it in a large pan with sides, added about an inch of Black Cherry Juice and covered it tightly with foil.  This ham weighed about 15 pounds and recipes suggested various cooking times, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes per pound.
The final formula…
After giving it much thought, we decided on the 20 minutes per pound scheme. However for the record, our cooking time ended up being a little bit longer.  The final formula was 4 hours 15 minutes at 300 degrees.  Upon removing it from the oven, we allowed it to set covered another 20 or 30 minutes.  We then removed the foil, scored the ham and brushed on a Black Cherry/Jack Daniel’s Whiskey glaze.  In the meantime the oven was heated to 425 and the ham returned uncovered to the hot oven for 15 minutes.  Upon glazing, the ham was removed from the oven and set to rest for an hour or so, until we were ready to eat.
…very thin slices
Carving the ham simply requires a meat fork and a long thin (very sharp) slicing knife.  First, the surface rind and excess fat are removed and saved or discarded, as you prefer.  Next, begin to cut very thin slices from across the top, parallel to the bone. Proceed across the top of the ham and then slice on each side of the main bone.  Serve the partially carved ham with some nice slices around it on a beautiful platter. It does make a very dramatic presentation.
…quality and regional tradition lives on.
Although Country Hams are available at many grocery stores in the south, we encourage you to become acquainted with Benton’s Smokey Mountain Country Hams of Madisonville, Tennessee.  Benton’s hams, bacon and other products have found their way on to the menus of some of the finest restaurants in America.  This small company is a treasure where quality and regional tradition lives on.