It had been a miserable day -- soggy, dark, mercury fixing to plunge, inhospitable, mud ugly -- when Barnie and Debbie Day walked in with a big ham, a big pot, a big saw and big hearts. They have taken us under their wings up here in the Blue Ridge and have been making sure we know what to do, especially when it comes to good eating.
Barnie has taught Jim Newlin and me how to skin a deer and where to get the meat butchered and wrapped. He has shown me his favorite early-morning hunting spots, introduced me to people who know how to fix a tractor or rive a shingle or get a small engine running again, and brought me books from his library in the century-old house where he and Debbie live.
On this night Jim and Silvie Granitelli joined us for a session in how to wrap-cook the ham. We turned it into a party. And it turns out to be fairly easy for an old guy to cook the best ham you ever tasted.It works like a charm. I should mention that all three of us are married to wonderful cooks, so it's a delight to me to discover I can do something in the cooking category that doesn't involve making a pot of chili or firing up the grill or tending the smoker all afternoon.
I wrote about Barnie's instructions for wrap-cooking a ham about a year ago on a blog I was writing for The Charlotte Observer, and I had tasted a wrap-cooked ham, but hadn't cooked one. Barnie says he got the instructions, by the way, from a fellow named Robert Crumpton Sr. of Roxboro and Oxford, so he always gives credit where it's due.
Detailed instructions follow, but here's the short summary: Get a Clifty Farm ham if you can find it (Barnie gets his at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville) and cut off the hock. Save it, but you won't need it to cook the ham. Put the ham in the big pot and cover it with a couple of inches of water. Turn it on and bring it to a boil. While you're waiting, drink some Irish whiskey and tell some outrageous stories. It won't help the ham cook but it'll fill the time while you're waiting for the pot to boil. When the pot boils, immediately take it off the stove, wrap the pot in some heavy insulation such as a sleeping bag, tie it all together, and leave it for about 12 hours. The next morning, pull the ham out of the still-hot water, remove the tough outer rind, score the fat in a cross-hatch or diamond pattern, rub in plain old American sugar, and bake it for two hours in the oven at 275 degrees. When it comes out, the flavor will just about knock you down it's so good.
Here's the longer set of instructions. Print 'em out, cook your ham, and remember where you read it first:
This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham. Guaranteed. Period. Scout’s honor. Cross my heart and hope to die. And it’s not original. Of course, I stole it. And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest. Often the case. We overcomplicate a lot of things. Cooking a ham is one of them.
Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured.
There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries.
Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections. They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.
Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.
He cured his hams “outside in.” He didn’t know about nitrate injections. (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!) He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months.
A note here: don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.” Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams. What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process.
Buy whatever brand you want. For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee. They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime. ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)
Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!
Unwrap the ham and wash it. Yeah, they all have a little mold. No big deal. Really. It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it. Just palm it off with a little warm water. Two minutes, tops.
Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for. I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use. They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store. If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on. You got no business with a country ham. Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.
Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.
Now here is the trick to this: As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove. That’s right. Off the stove when it begins to boil. Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way.
Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up. Pot and all. You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag. The patio lounge cushion works well. That’s what I use. The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.
I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine. This doesn’t take five minutes. Just make sure it’s insulated good.
When you get it wrapped, leave it alone. Walk away from it. Forget about it for 12 hours. Just let it sit.
After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan. Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.
Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees. And that’s it. You’re done. Let it cool before slicing.
Merry Christmas. And best to you and yourn
Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA