Fresh ham is nothing like the boozy bourbon-soaked and smoked holiday ham or the candy-sweet spiral wonder. It’s essentially a pork roast with a bone — a rather big pork roast with a bone — but a pork roast nonetheless. It’s simply the upper hind leg of a pig, not processed or cured using salt or brine, nor smoked as most hams are. Fresh ham tastes like a really moist pork loin or center-cut pork chops. And, when prepared and roasted properly, a fresh ham is capped by an exquisite, burnished-gold piece of crispy skin. It’s the perfect marriage of a bone-in pork chop and cracklin’ pork belly. Fresh ham means down-home comfort, especially when served with roasted sweet potatoes.
How did serving ham for Easter become a custom? Mediterranean celebrations, including the Jewish Passover, traditionally call for lamb at spring feasts. However, in northern Europe, pigs were the primary protein and ham was often served instead for special meals. Pigs were slaughtered in the fall and the meat was salted, smoked and cured over the winter. The resulting hams were ready to eat in the spring. At the point when refrigeration became widely available and curing hams wasn’t a necessity, someone came up with the grand idea of cooking fresh ham. I am glad they did.
It’s still a bit early for spring produce in most parts of the country, so I suggest that you pair Easter ham with roasted sweet potatoes. You may not recognize these sweet potatoes either. There’s not a marshmallow in sight! Instead, it’s a simple combination of brown sugar, butter and spice that marries wonderfully with the herbal flavors and aromas of the fresh ham.
A whole ham will typically weigh 18 to 20 pounds and includes both the butt end and the shank end. The butt end is the upper part of the leg, literally, the rump of the pig. The shank end is the lower end. Fresh hams can be a bit unwieldy in size and are best served for grand feasts with lots of friends and family. To carve a fresh ham, place the widest side of the ham on a cutting board, preferably one with a groove. Start at the large end and use a carving knife to cut thin slices perpendicular to the bone. Then, after cutting several slices, run the knife parallel to the bone to cut the slices free. Finish carving that section of the ham and then turn it and slice another side.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.