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For Easter, start fresh

By Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; E01

After a year spent testing recipes for our new book about the hindquarters of pigs, it took a fresh ham and a TSA security agent to deliver our most memorable moment.

We had driven a pig to slaughter and witnessed its death. We had endured a mass of maggots in a French charcuterie and, afterward, had watched a gaggle of urban hipsters demolish the remains of a jambon persillé. We met a woman in Kentucky who makes country hams and calls herself "the Colonel." We sampled about every European ham out there -- Spanish jamon Iberico, Portuguese presunto, French jambon d'Ardennes among them.

But the last step of our surreal, delicious journey involved bringing the fresh ham on a plane ride home for Easter. It was just the back end of our own pig, the last of the lot.

The skin-on ham was in a plastic bag. It made it through the first conveyor belt of airport security, then became the subject of a cavity search. The agent snapped on her plastic gloves and picked it up. She looked at it for a moment and then asked, "Is this human?"

Mind you, it wasn't at its best, frozen into a frost-rimmed hunk.

"It's from our own pig," we answered, as if that would explain everything.

She did not seem pleased.

We thought she might be confused because she didn't know about fresh hams. Maybe she expected a ham to be smoked or aged in some way, if not tarted up with cherries and soda pop. Or perhaps braised into a sugary, salty behemoth that confirms the wisdom of whoever first defined eternity as two people and a ham.

Even a farmer down the road from us wasn't sure about the nature of fresh hams, and he raises pigs. When we told him we were going to bring a ham home and cure it before roasting it, he said, "So you're going to turn it into a ham."

Um, no. Long before it has been cured or brined or salted or smoked or even aged into prosciutto crudo, a ham is the hindquarter of the pig. Composed of four major muscles, it is the back haunch and upper back leg down to the shank of a pig, wild boar, or other porcine-ish animal.

A whole ham can weigh up to 20 pounds, but it is usually cut into two chunks: the shank end, familiar as the tapering, iconic roast on the table, the bone angling down its length; and the butt end, a little more gnarly and lumpish, with a more complicated bone structure to boot. Either can be boned. Both are called half-hams, in butcher parlance.

Perhaps the purest way to experience a ham's lusciousness is to take a fresh half and brine it yourself. The meat remains gloriously tender, moist and somehow bright. There's no smoke to compete with the pork's delicate flavors, which are a cross between sweet and umami, with a few bitter undertones for balance.

One way we learned to love this meat was to cure it in red wine and spices, then roast it on a bed of orange slices: all complements to those sweet notes, those bitter undertones, with some sour flavors thrown in for more balance.

In other words, utter bliss. And to head off any witty commentary about eternity, we also spent time crafting weekday recipes for those inevitable leftovers after the feast.

But before we could even get to the curing part, we had to get past that TSA agent. She wanded and swabbed and prodded our ham. It must have passed muster, because she strolled back to us, palming it aloft on a bent elbow. She eyed us suspiciously, then asked, "You say it's from your own pig?"

Would it have made a difference if it had come from the supermarket? Who knows?

We nodded yes. She let us go. Off to curing our own fresh ham and to roasting it for dinner, which seemed like a fine way to end the adventure.

Recipes

Sangria-Cured Ham

Fried Ham and Cheese Sandwiches With Chipotle Mayonnaise

Spanish-Inspired Ham and Pasta Salad

Weinstein and Scarbrough are the authors of, most recently, "Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010).

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