My mother is from Connecticut, my dad was born and raised in the Bronx, and my husband is Australian, leaving me no defense against being called a Yankee; or at least a Yank in my husband’s case. Hewing to stereotype, our Yankee family usually has a standing rib roast and yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner, but I think it might be time for a change. This year I’m making a southern-style Christmas dinner, with aged Kentucky country ham as the centerpiece, surrounded by traditional sides like collard greens and corn bread.
How did this come about? Well, I confess to being lured in by Saveur‘s most recent issue and its focus on all the different ways ham is prepared as a celebratory food around the world. I’ve been served aged country ham in the past, by a friend who grew up in the south, and when I started reading up on the history, that clinched it.
American aged country ham is a traditional food of the south, found mainly in Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Missouri. It is actually a close cousin to prosciutto, jamón ibérico, speck, and other similar European dry aged hams. All of these styles of ham rely on a salt cure to suck the liquid out of the meat, preserving it and concentrating its flavor. After the salt cure (which sometimes also includes sugar and spices), the ham can be smoked (or not) and then hung in a cloth wrapping to age for at least 6 months.
Due to the time consuming nature of this process, it’s getting harder and harder to find a true dry aged country ham. Some of the old makers have been bought out by larger companies who are now taking shortcuts with the process to yield more profit. Even in the 1970s when James Beard was writing his American Cookery, he said, “Nowadays one seldom finds a ham aged more than two or three years. Formerly it was not uncommon to find them aged six or seven years, especially from Virginia or Kentucky.” Adding to his lament, I can say that during my research for Christmas dinner, I could only find hams that had been aged for one year.
I decided to go with Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham for my Christmas dinner. I like the fact that the company is owned by the founder’s granddaughter and she still uses the same 18th Century family recipe to cure the hams, which includes a salt and brown sugar cure and then a slow smoke over hickory wood.
Ham ordered, I began to research recipes. A word of caution: there are many horror stories on the Internet, from people who heard about the wonders of aged country ham, decided to try it out, but cooked it the same way they would a ham bought in a (Yankee) grocery store. Aged country ham needs to be soaked for one or two days before cooking to remove the excess salt left from the curing process. If you don’t do that, it will taste like a piece of rock salt with ham flavoring. It is also important to serve aged country ham sliced as thinly as possible (think prosciutto here) and at room temperature which makes it taste less salty.
As with all traditional foods, there is much lore surrounding the best way to prepare it. Betty Fussell, and others claim that tea in the soaking water will help draw out the salt. I’m going to try out that suggestion and see what happens. Other popular recipes include the use of Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper as part of the braising liquid. I think I’ll stick with white wine, or maybe apple cider, and a little Calvados (see, I’m still a Yankee at heart). The final question is, to glaze or not to glaze? I’m not sure yet. I’m thinking a fruity, but not too sweet, glaze could be a nice foil for the intense, salty ham. Other traditional options include bread crumbs, brown sugar and mustard; or molasses, brown sugar and mustard. So many choices!
Below I’ve listed our complete Yankee Southern Christmas menu and I wish you and yours a sumptuous and flavorful holiday!
Nigella Lawson’s Sweet Corn Pudding
Melissa Clark’s Wildflower Honey and Whisky-glazed Sweet Potatoes (except I’ll be using Bourbon instead of Whisky)
Collard Greens braised slowly with the ham hock cut from our country ham
Robb Walsh’s Cane Syrup Pecan Pie