AS SO OFTEN happens in cooking, you only come to the good things the long way round.
For instance, the best thing about country ham is red-eye gravy. It takes you about 5 minutes to make, but you can't make it until you've cleaned, soaked and cooked a country ham and then fried up a slice or more in a cast-iron frying pan. All the fussing with the ham takes two or three days. You can shorten the process by purchasing pre-sliced country ham and soaking it in warm water or milk. Nonetheless, it's a long haul to reach red-eye gravy.
So, naturally, we'll talk about country ham. First things first and after all, Easter is coming.
You can obtain a country ham fairly easily. (One of several brands made in or near Smithfield, Va., can be found in local supermarkets and many specialty meat markets carry them, too.) But stand warned. Despite the price, despite the fancy pedigree, despite the effort, one of the worst tricks you can pull on unsuspecting Easter dinner guests (and maybe on yourself) is to serve up a large, thickly sliced portion of country ham. Even after soaking, most country hams have a saline level roughly equivalent to Utah's Great Salt Lake.
Once you understand you are dealing with a red salt lick, the danger of country ham can be cured, to risk a pun. You serve small amounts of it on, in or around something soft and bland -- on biscuits covered with unsalted butter, in a gratin of potatoes or turnips, around a piece of melon or a large date. Country ham goes very well with turkey or chicken or even tunafish in a sandwich or in a salad. Shredded or in chips, it adds character to vegetable salads and to pasta dishes. (It is not good for dessert.) The texture is extraordinary, soft but fiberous, and in addition to salt, the pork flavor is tinged with other nuances: Perhaps the hog was corn or peanut fed, the smoking wood may be hickory or applewood, pepper and sugar or honey may have been employed as curing agents.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says country ham may also be called country-style ham, dry cured ham, country pork shoulder, country-style pork shoulder or dry cured pork shoulder. It must be made from a single piece of meat and, as some of the names imply, cannot be cured in a liquid solution or by injection. Salt must be used, plus, as desired, "nutritive sweeteners, spices, seasonings and flavorings," and of course those old favorites sodium nitrate and nitrite.
If you skip the sodium nitrate, the ham must have a "brine concentration" of 10 percent. With the preservative, it must have an internal salt content of "at least 4 percent." That's a lot of salt.
Pork becomes ham by being cured (the raw meat receives several coatings of salt plus permissible additives over a period of time), then left at low temperature (below 40 degrees) for "salt equalization." This must take at least 45 days for hams and 25 days for pork shoulders. The ham then can be smoked, though it need not be. The required drying process brings the total time up to at least 70 days for hams (50 days for pork shoulders). This time and care, plus considerable shrinkage as the hams sweat themselves dry at varying temperatures, helps explain the very high price the finished product commands.
Once you have your ham in hand, you need a brush and a large pot. Wash the ham under running water, scrubbing off surface salt, pepper and/or mold. Place the ham in the pot and cover it completely with warm water. Most directions advise soaking overnight, but a period of 24 hours with several changes of water is even better.
Now transfer it to a roasting pan and bake it in a 300-degree oven until an internal temperature of 160 is reached, or, following one method advocated by Betty Talmadge in her handy book, "How To Cook a Pig," pour in two pints of cola or fruit juice and an equal amount of water. Cover the pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes to the pound.
Betty Talmadge finishes her ham for presentation by cutting off the outer skin and excess fat, then adding cloves and brown sugar to the surface and cooking for another 20 minutes in a 450-degree oven. Alternatively, she will cook the ham, covered with water, atop the stove. She adds vinegar, brown sugar, onions, bay leaves and cloves -- the exact amounts are in her book -- and simmers (not boils) the ham for 20 minutes to the pound. It is done when the small bone can be twisted out. The ham should be allowed to cool in its liquid. It can be reheated or sliced and served cold.
A so-called "original Tidewater Virginia Receipt" credited to Sarah Anderson Marshall isn't much different. It reads: "Soak ham over night, put on to boil next morning, cooking very slowly. When done take off and cool in its own essence. When cold take off the skin, gash the top with a knife. Sprinkle on top of ham two tablespoons of brown sugar; a little dry mustard; teaspoon of celery seed; little cracker dust; and wine glass of sherry. Put in oven, bake a few minutes, garnish with watercress and curley parsley."
Recently a blind tasting of five country hams was held. The hams were provided by Howard Solganik of the Georgetown Wine & Food Company from his store's stock and prepared at the American Cafe.The five hams, in order of preference, were: Colonel Bill Newsom ($3.99 per pound) from Princeton, Ky. ("excellent texture, good balance of smoke and salt"); Luter's Genuine Smithfield ($3.29 per pound) from Smithfield, Va. ("dark color, pleasant texture"); Talmadge Country Ham ($3.99 per pound) from Lovejoy, Ga. ("rather dry, salty"); and a tie between Lawrence Smoke House ($4.29 per pound) from Newfane, Vt. ("mild flavor, too smoky") and Claudia Sanders ($3.29 per pound) from Cecilia, Ky. ("mushy texture, strong flavor").
The Newsom ham also had the least shrinkage. It went from 13.62 pounds to a trimmed weight of 9.2 pounds after cooking.