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The Commercial Appeal  (Memphis, TN)      March 23, 2005 

Psst! Learn the secrets of COUNTRY HAM Months of dry curing gives porker its delicious taste

Author: Jennifer Biggs   biggs@commercialappeal.com

Edition: Final  -  Section: Features  -  Page: Ml  -  Index Terms: recipe

Article Text:

All due respect to a city ham, which is probably what you've had on your Easter table all your life. It's pretty darn tasty.  But if you want to turn your Easter dinner into a feast to rival Thanksgiving or Christmas, leave the city ham in the store and take home its country cousin instead.

"People don't know about cooking country ham, except trying it up for breakfast," said Charlie Tripp Jr., owner of Tripp Country Ham in Brownsville. "Well, maybe grandmothers or granddaddies up in their 80s - they know."  But there was a time when all hams were either fresh hams or country hams, which means they were dry cured instead of injected with a curing solution or brine, which is how a city ham is preserved.  It took months in the old days, and it's still a lengthy process .

Tripp receives between 50,000 and 60,000 hams a year, 2,000 at a time, fresh from hog farms in Ohio. When they arrive, they're put in vats and salted. Five days later, they're salted again. For seven weeks they'll stay in the vats, curing in the "winter" room.

"Country hams started long before there was refrigeration," Tripp said. "What you would do is kill the hog in November and December, salt everything down and leave it alone, then wash the salt off and hang it in the spring."  He follows the same seasons at his plant. After the winter room, which is kept at about 36 degrees Fahrenheit, the hams are cleaned and taken to the spring room where they hang at about 45 degrees for two weeks. Then they go to the summer room, where the temperature is in the mid-80s.  "The old-timers say the ham has to go through the 'summer sweats' to get its flavor," Tripp said.  After four weeks of the sweats, the hams are smoked for one week.  By that time, they're officially a country ham, which means they've lost a minimum of 18 percent moisture. At Tripp, that's just the beginning.

"A really good ham loses 22, 24 percent or so," Tripp said. "Ours are about 22 to 25 percent. We push quality."  He's got the awards to show it: Tripp country hams have taken a Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion prize every second year since 1992 at the American Cured Meat Championships, they are Tennessee State Fair and Mid-South Fair Grand Champion winners, and they recently were voted the best by some folks who should know a good country ham when they taste one - The National Country Ham Association.

Country hams are generally associated with the South, but many popular hams around the world are country hams.  "That's what prosciutto and serrano are, just country hams," Tripp said.  He's referring to the popular hams from Italy and Spain, both of which are available at Mantia's.

Shop owner Alyce Mantia comes from Kentucky, where she'd cook a country ham on Derby Day, the first Saturday in May when the Kentucky Derby is run.  "I'd usually get the ham on Christmas and keep it until Derby Day," she said. "But I've kept them for two or three years before."  And that's nothing, she said. In some Kentucky families, it's traditional to present a baby girl with a country ham when she's born and to serve it at her wedding reception.  The older the ham, the longer it has to soak before it's cooked. In fact, it'll even grow mold and get really nasty looking, but it's nothing that a good scrubbing won't cure. 

But Tripp doesn't recommend further aging of his hams by consumers for a simple reason: There's just not enough fat. "The ham breeders are breeding the fat out of the ham because it's what people want," he said.  That means that a ham that might have weighed in at 40 pounds a generation or so ago now weighs about half that. Without the fat to protect the meat, it can become too dry if aged outside of optimum conditions.

Tripp recommends boiling a country ham to ensure that it doesn't get too dry.  "Baking it is an easy way to ruin it," he said. 

Lynda Googe of Cordova agrees.  "There are two ways to do it, and the worst method is putting it in the oven," she said.  She's from Virginia and learned to cook a Smithfield ham by watching her father. She puts a big roasting pan over two burners on her stove top, completely covers the ham with water and simmers a 14-pound ham for seven hours. She removes the fat when the ham is still warm, and then refrigerates it under a damp towel overnight. The following morning her husband spends a couple of hours working on it with a knife.  "The secret to it is slicing it very thin," she said.  She mail orders a Gwaltney Smithfield ham when she can't find one locally (go to smithfieldhams.com). 

But Tripp's hams have gone up against the Virginia and Kentucky hams and come out on top.  "I have so many people tell me that they're surprised when they taste our hams," he said. "They say the country hams around here are better than any they've ever tasted." 

Tripp country hams are available at all area Schnucks and at various other groceries around town like Piggly Wiggly, Super Valu Foods and Wal-Mart Supercenter. Kroger does not carry Tripp hams; they stock Burger country hams. City hams are widely available. Honeybaked Ham and Holiday Ham & Deli offer spiral sliced hams, but neither carries country hams.

 - Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

 Boiled Country Ham

1 country ham

Optional: 1 cup molasses or 64 oz. apple juice or 1 cup vinegar and 1 cup brown sugar or 64 oz. cola

Cut off approximately 3 inches of the hock with a hacksaw, or have your butcher do it for you; reserve for seasoning beans or greens. Place the ham in a large pot, weight it and completely cover with water. Soak for 12 hours, then drain and cover with fresh water. If using one of the optional ingredients listed above, add now. Bring to a boil then turn the heat down and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes per pound. Make sure it doesn't boil after you turn down the heat.

After cooking, remove from heat and allow the ham to cool in the water. Remove rind, wrap in foil and place in the refrigerator. If slicing, completely chill the ham first then thinly slice.

If glazing and serving whole at the table, score the fat after you remove the rind, then brush on the glaze and broil for about 15 minutes, fat side up.

Note: The federal government says a ham should be cooked for about 20 minutes a pound or to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, but Charlie Tripp says that's how you can ruin a good ham.

 Source: Tripp Country Hams

 Honey Glaze 1/4 cup orange juice  -  1/4 cup honey  -  1 tsp. prepared mustard

Mix ingredients and brush over scored ham.

Source: Tripp Country Hams

 

 Jalapeno Pepper Jelly Glaze

1 scallion (white and tender green parts), minced  -  1 garlic clove, minced  -  1/2 tsp. peeled and finely grated fresh ginger  -  1 tbsp. sugar  -  1/2 tsp. salt  -  1/2 cup jalapeno pepper jelly, melted  -  1-1/2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar

 On a cutting board, using the flat side ! of a chefs knife, mash the scallion, garlic and ginger together with the sugar and salt into a coarse paste. Scrape into a small skillet and stir in jelly and vinegar. Remove from heat. Apply to scored ham. Will keep for two days tightly covered in the refrigerator.

 Source: Get Saucy, Grace Parisi

 

 Pineapple Chutney with Golden Raisins

2 cups peeled, cored and diced (1/2 inch) golden pineapple  -  1/2 small sweet onion, finely chopped  -   1/2 small green pepper, seeded and finely chopped  -  1/4 cup sugar  -  1/4 cup cider vinegar  -  6 cardamom pods  -  1 tbsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger  -  1/2 cup golden raisins  -  Salt

In a medium-size heavy saucepan, combine all ingredients and let sit until very juicy, about one hour, stirring occasionally. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and simmer until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and cool. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold. Will keep tightly covered in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

 Source: Get Saucy, Grace Parisi

 Copyright (c) 2005  The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN Record Number: 109070B541EAA498

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