Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 5, 2011
02:25 PMSmall Dishes
Green Eggs and Ham
It’s obvious that pastel colored eggs and chocolate bunnies at Easter are pagan symbols, long part of the celebration of spring. Like many holiday icons—including the Christmas tree—they predate Christianity.
How the ham got to be popular at Easter is a little less clear, at least for many of us today who think of it as that pink stuff sold refrigerated at the supermarket. First of all, a ham is the thigh (upper portion) of the hind leg of a pig. Today, most are cured with brine injected into the meat. Sugar or honey is usually added along with nitrites to produce the nice Porky Pig color. Better quality hams are smoked over hardwood—hickory and cherry being the most popular—but sometime just sprayed or injected with liquid smoke flavor. These “fresh hams” are fully cooked and must be kept refrigerated and consumed within a week or so of purchasing.
Before the fresh ham became popular, there was only what is now referred to in the United States as the “country ham.” It’s made with a dry cure; sometime smoked, sometime not. A country ham needs no refrigeration, often is aged a year or two, and then soaked and cooked right before serving.
Today, country hams are most often produced in the South, especially Virginia and Kentucky, and the cure and type of hog used varies from place to place. Many European hams such as Italian prosciutto and Spanish serrano are made the same way but served raw.
Ham has always been favored for a large celebration feast since it feeds a large number—at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but especially at Easter. Before modern refrigeration, it was strictly winter fare—after cooking, hams were stored in a larder at room temperature until served. It soon spoiled in summer. So, with the advent of warmer weather, Easter was really the last opportunity to enjoy this delicacy.
Among Europeans and for many in this country—especially Italian and Greek Americans—lamb is the meat of choice for Easter dinner. To many Christians, the lamb is a symbol for Jesus and his sacrifice. Lamb’s popularity as a spring dish, though, no doubt predates the observance of Easter. Sheep conceive in the late fall and baby lambs follow five months later, in the early spring. A year later they mature and are marketed as “spring lamb”—meat from sheep less than one year old. Spring lamb is valued for its mild flavor and tenderness.
I like a good ham or leg of lamb for Easter. It’s always a tough decision, but one I don’t have to make this year. I’m having brunch at a friend’s house.
Fresh Ham. Like most of their products, Neuske’s ham is outstanding; applewood smoked and sold in several styles. You’ll find it Metcalfe’s Market, Jenifer Street Market and other specialty food retailers, or you can order one on their website. Willow Creek Farms near Prairie du Sac also includes among its fine pork products and excellent ham and it’s available at the Willy Street Co-op.
Country Ham. To the best of my knowledge no one in town sells country ham, but they’re readily available shipped to your door. One of my favorites is from Finchville Farms in Finchville, Kentucky. These are the genuine article and available both bone in or boneless; raw or cooked. If you’ve never tried country ham before, I’d recommend one of their packages of cooked and sliced ham.
Prosciutto. A salad currently on the menu at Francesca’s al Lago is prosciutto e carciofi—proscuitto and baby artichokes—a great combination along with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Prosciutto is also available sliced to order or prepackaged at many specialty markets. Fraboni’s usually has two or more varieties, both imported and domestic.
Ham Sandwich. Marigold Kitchen makes a muffuletta-inspired ham sandwich with salami, provolone and olive relish, served on a ciabatta roll with aioli.
Easter Brunch. The Capitol Chophouse buffet from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. features chef carved cider and honey glazed ham (along with roast beef and leg of pork).