Welcome back to the kitchen! Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat… No, no, we aren’t going to cook a goose today (although potatoes roasted in goose fat are particularly delicious). I do want to take a crack at some traditional Christmas fare, however, just not a goose.
In fact, I want to take on the far more common Christmas ham. This is a good time of year for the smoky, salty, sweet deliciousness of a baked and glazed ham. And you will notice they are on sale at all the markets as we get close tot eh holiday.
Now, why am I urging everyone to run out and buy a ham? Well, it is not because they represent any great culinary challenge. Almost any that you will find have already been cooked or cured, so you will mostly just be heating up the ham and adding some flavor in your glaze.
But the real reason I want you to get a ham is for that treasured bone or hock inside. The ham itself will go down easy with some mashed potatoes, green beans, or whatever sides you like. But I have been known to leave Christmas dinner parties with a giant pig bone in a bag, eager to get home and get a stock pot simmering. You see, a ham bone is one of the perfect ways to start off so many delicious winter soups and stews. So get a nice ham (not one of those processed ones, we want the good stuff on the bone), make up a Christmas feast, but save all that leftover meat and bone to make into a wonderful, warming creation.
Before we get to the leftovers stage, however, let’s turn to wikipedia for a little ham history. Why is it that this dish, perhaps above all others, is so associated with Christmas?
So that is one version, but wikipedia adds that,
According to some folklorists and historians
the Christmas ham's origins in England lay in a:
"...tradition [that] was initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval
times....[In ancient Norse
tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr
to show favor to the new year. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels."
As with so many things, the Christmas ham may well be an echo of much more ancient traditions that survive and change in their retelling. And maybe that history doesn’t really matter so much as the fact that grandmothers have been serving baked ham since time immemorial, and that is why we treasure it on Christmas.
Again, because they come pre-cooked or cured, baking a ham is a very easy task, and one which yields fairly flashy results on a banquet table. One of the most classic glazes involves pineapple rings, brown sugar, and mustard. \
Heat up your oven and start baking a nice spiral cut bone in ham in a roasting pan as instructed on the packaging (heat and time varies depending on how big your ham is). About 30-40 minutes before it is all the way heated, take the ham out of the oven and open up a can of pineapple rings, reserving the juice aside.
Arrange the pineapple rings over the ham and pin them in place. You can use toothpicks, but it is classy in a sort of 1950s way to use whole cloves to pin the pineapple on. And if you want to go full Betty Draper style, pin a maraschinos cherry in the center of each pineapple ring.
In a small bowl combine ¾ cup packed brown sugar (some recipes call for light brown sugar, but I like the added depth of flavor from more molasses in dark brown sugar) and 2-3 tablespoons of mustard. Many old recipes call for yellow mustard, but I strongly prefer stone ground deli style. Splash in enough of the pineapple juice we’ve been saving to make a nice thick glaze (maybe 1/3 cup or so). I also like to add a dash of nutmeg, some black pepper, and just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper for heat, but those are all optional.
Using a pastry brush or a wooden spoon, smear the mustard, brown sugar, and pineapple juice glaze all over the ham. Most recipes have you glaze right over the pineapple rings, but it might taste good to get some glaze on first, then attach the rings, then glaze over the top as well.
Put the ham back in the oven for the final half hour or so, and let cook until the glaze hardens a bit and darkens up. Yum! That really is all there is to a classic holiday ham. It looks great, as though it took more effort than it really did, and tastes great too. The salty and smoky flavors of the meat play really well with the sweetness and tanginess of the glaze.
Another option would be to cover the ham with apple slices and use maple syrup for a glaze, if you wanted to use alternative ingredients and flavors. You could even do a teriyaki glaze, if the muse so moves you.
But focus on some great side dishes, some tasty cocktails, and most importantly, on your loved ones. The ham will be a great center piece, but it needn’t be fussed over or cause stress. Carve the ham and let everyone eat their fill. There is a good chance there will be leftovers,
And this, friends, is why we wanted to make that ham in the first place! So cut away most of the meat from the bone and put on a big pot to simmer. We’ve got some soup to make!
There are lots of classics that make use of a ham hock. Split pea is a favorite of mine. Black beans also go great with ham. White bean and ham is a diner staple. And today I have my eye on a simple lentil soup with ham flavoring. Actually, most of the ham based soup recipes that come to mind also use dried beans of some sort, probably because the meaty flavors do a lot to the blandness of beans. Ham and potato soups work for much the same reason. Of course, all of these recipes could be made vegetarian. But to me, the ham just adds so much more flavor.
So for a leftover ham and lentil soup, let’s get
-1 leftover smoked ham bone or 2 smoked ham hocks
- plus 1 cup leftover ham meat, chopped into bite sized pieces (optional)
-1 pound lentils (about 2 1/2 cups), picked over and rinsed
-1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped (about 3 1/2 cups)
-3 onions, chopped coarse
-1 cup chopped carrot
-1 cup chopped celery
-1 cinnamon stick
-1 bay leaf
-3 1/2 cups beef broth (veggie stock is a fine substitute and chicken would be fine as well, plain water might end up a bit bland unless you sauté other veggies and add them too)
-plus 8 cups water to add to the broth and help cook the lentils
The actual method for cooking this soup is also incredibly simple. Chop your veggies, throw everything into a big pot, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until tender. I know, it is almost disappointing how easy that is. But this time of year, when there are so many demands on our time, it is nice to have this sort of set it and forget it recipe. You could even make this in a crock pot if you’d like to.
It should take about 1.5 hours for the lentils to get tender and all the flavors to meld. Add a lot of fresh ground black pepper to taste. It is unlikely the soup will need any salt, what with the ham and broth we added. Discard the bone (chopping off any extra meat), the bay leaf, and cinnamon stick before serving.
And as with any soup, you can bring it up to a gentle boil in the beginning, but then you want to back the heat way down to low and cook it for a long time on a simmer. This will bring out the best flavors and leave ingredients intact. This ham and lentil soup is a great way to warm up after a day playing out in the snow. And it makes perfect use of the leftover Christmas ham. It will keep in the fridge or on the cold porch for several days and is great to freeze and reheat all winter long.
I hope these simple preparations have gotten you excited for feasting with family and friends this Christmas. Good food, good people, and good cheer are what the holidays are all about to me. I’d love to hear what foods you most associate with Christmas, and how you plan to celebrate. Send me any questions or comments to Isaac@kohoradio.com
. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.