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Country ham is country gentleman of Southern cooking

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Country ham is country gentleman of Southern cooking

By Greg Summers

When given the opportunity to do a little country cooking, I head straight for the kitchen. It’s no secret to anyone that my idea of a great recipe is keeping things as simple as possible by using basic ingredients found in most cupboards and refrigerators.       And it doesn’t get more simple and basic than country ham, especially with October being National Country Ham Month. If given a choice between store-bought, sugar-cured ham and one that’s been salt cured beneath layers of salt in a box tucked inside a small dark, drying shed or hung from a hickory smoke house for months, I’ll take the latter every time.  Country ham – sometimes referred to as Virginia ham – is a regional smoked delicacy that’s the real deal. Many in the Carolinas prefer a “salt and pepper” country ham that’s not smoked. Regardless of your preference, there’s nothing fancy about country ham.  In fact, it hasn’t changed that much since the days that Lewis and Clark fried it up in a cast iron skillet over an open fire. Until the mid-1950s, the country ham business was handcrafted and not federally regulated, which meant you had to go to the farm for it, said David Ross, author of “Country Ham: Jewel of the South.”  “Most country hams were made in small batches by local farmers and sold straight off the pack of pick-ups or while hanging in a country store,” Ross writes. “A little bit of mold on a country ham is a mark of distinction in the ham world.” I’ve been trying to find someone around Lancaster who still salt cures and hangs their own hams, but so far, I’ve come up empty. In my lifetime, I can recall salting down hams when pigs were butchered on cold winter days. The ham would disappear for at least six months    “I can’t think of a soul who still does it,” said Joe Blackwell, owner of Lancaster Frozen Foods. “That’s not something you see very much of now.”   These days, country ham isn’t just simple, country food; it’s now showing up on gourmet cooking shows.  When you see chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali dicing prosciutto (pronounced “pro-shoo-toe”) and scattering it into a dish, they’re using paper-thin sliced country ham for an ingredient. We might consider it to be uniquely American fare, but that’s not the case. Ross said the Italians have been curing hams for thousands of years and are famous for prosciutto, which literally means “thoroughly dried.”  It’s “a much fancier sounding name than country ham, but really, it’s the same thing,” Ross writes. Cooking country ham  While it’s usually pan-fried in whole slices, or cut into pieces and cooked with a mixture of pan drippings (pot liquor) and coffee to make red-eye gravy, country ham finds its way into many dishes besides biscuits.  It’s a soul food ingredient in everything ranging from collard greens and soups to shrimp and grits.      Now, it’s a given that everyone doesn’t like salty taste, but there are ways to get around that, too. According to Smithfield Farms, a country ham cured by a dry salt method will always be salty to some degree. Country ham can be leached to some degree by soaking and cooking it in 7-UP, apple juice or cola.   The sweetness of those things will counter the salt, but won’t completely remove it. Ross said that some Southern cooks insist on using two cups of water and two bottles of Coca-Cola as a country ham glaze that’s spooned over the ham as it bakes to form the “perfect sweet taste of the South.” “You don’t call it just ham,” he writes. “You call it by its proper and full name just as you would address a country gentleman – country ham.”    Blame it on “Old Hickory?” No one knows the exact story of how red-eye gravy got its name, but Lancaster’s own Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, is caught squarely in the middle of the debate. According to legend, Jackson (who was a military general at the time), called his cook over to tell him what to prepare. It seems that the cook had been drinking corn whiskey the night before and his eyes were as red as fire. Jackson told the cook to “bring me some country ham with gravy as red as your eyes.” Some of Jackson’s men, who were nearby, heard the general’s remark and from then on, called ham gravy “red-eye gravy.” (From www.southernbyways.com)  

  Crock Pot Chicken with Country Ham Ingredients 4 frozen boneless chicken breasts 1 can mushroom soup 1 small container sour cream 10-ounce pack of thin-sliced country ham cut into dime-size pieces Fettuccine noodles Directions – Mix the soup and sour cream together in a slow cooker and add frozen chicken breasts and ham. Noodles can be added later, if desired. – Cook on low for about 6 hours or more, depending on your crock pot.

  Red-eye Gravy Ingredients 2 1/4-inch slices cured country ham 1/2 cup brewed coffee  Directions – Slowly fry ham slices on both sides, in a cast iron skillet until lightly browned on each side. Transfer slices to a plate and keep warm. – Add coffee to skillet, and, over high heat, boil it down, scraping ham renderings on the bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon. Reduce the liquid to almost a glaze and spoon over ham slices. Serve with something traditional like eggs and grits.

  – Adapted from recipes by Smithfield Farms