This week’s guest post is compliments of Casey Barber, editor of online food magazine Good. Food. Stories. Casey is just as in love with cookbooks as I am, so I’m always excited to hear her picks!
I’m one of those weirdos who reads cookbooks like they were Patricia Cornwall paperbacks, who takes to the couch with a blanket, a cup of jasmine tea, and the latest from The Lee Bros. or Barbara Lynch. Tomes of recipes that provoke the Pavlovian drool response, woven together by tall tales and life-experience lessons—man, that’s my kind of page-turner. Why do you think I named my site Good. Food. Stories.? By these reading standards, Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter was a hoot.
Even if you’re leery of taking on a whole hindquarter yourself, authors Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough pull you in with their instant-BFFs tone. These guys tell capital-S Stories, and are eerily close in temperament to my internal monologue. Is there a Southern gay man inside my head? And the hardcover book design is gloriously done, evoking an early 20th-century small-town newsletter but of course, stylized and well-punctuated with smart tester’s notes and other sidebar tips.
A hilarious, heartfelt and helpful ode to ham
Within this celebration of the diverse uses and tastes of a pig haunch are four sections dealing with variations on ham preparation: fresh, wet-cured, dry-cured European, and dry-cured American. There’s a sweeping array of dishes throughout, from slap-a-sandwich-together (hammy reuben bites (page 92) made with jamon serrano, I’ve got my eye on you) to multi-day extravaganzas such as the full brined and cured hams. But with more than 100 recipes to work through, there’s an opportunity to pick and choose based on your level of commitment.
There’s one thing that’s problematic with the topic of Ham: an Obsession with the Hundquarter: ham is not a cheap habit. As a freelancer who reviews books for fun—not profit—a full European Ham Party with a whole dry-cured leg displayed on a custom ham rack might be out of the question for the time being. In the same vein, I’ve got to rally the troops and invite every friend in the Tri-State area before I attempt to wet-cure and/or smoke my own whole ham.
I ended up testing recipes that fed fewer than eight people, the ones that didn’t require a purchase of 12 pounds of ham all at once. The Asian subchapter in the fresh ham section was particularly intriguing, so the Chinese noodles with ham and cashews (page 56) and the Indonesian chile ham saute (page 61) went to the top of my to-try list.
Both of these recipes called for shredding fresh ham (cutting the meat along the grain into matchsticks) and as it turns out, this process was a bit of a pain in my ham end, if you catch my drift. For cooks getting comfortable with breaking down big pieces of protein, it’s a good exercise to explore the meat, get your hands in it and rip it apart to see the muscle placement. But for all the work, the flavor wasn’t overwhelmingly HAM enough in the end to make it worth it. The sauces, however, were slurpable down to the last drop, and the recipes will come back into my rotation with diced fresh ham or maybe even ground pork as a sub-in.
The dry-cured European ham recipes, where Italian prosciutto crudo, Spanish jamon serrano, speck, and other familiar charcuterie wander into the picture, are unsurprisingly winners across the board. It’s hard to hate on jamon serrano-wrapped scallops (page 85), pasta with prosciutto, peas, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (page 99) or prosciutto-wrapped meatloaf (page 119) when they’re tweaked reminders of already-beloved dishes.
If I play my cards right, I might be able to convince my friends who own a big farmhouse (with meat hooks in the property’s barn) that a combination barbecue/ham gorging is on the books for August. But even if we need to wait a few more months, I now have Ham on my shelf as reassurance for the day I finally get there. In the meantime, I’ll keep loading myself up with country ham steaks at the store and plowing through the other 90-something recipes. Just call me a piglet.
- Interstitial stories are hilarious—the saga of how the authors raised a pig, butchered it, and worked their way through Wilbur’s various parts in the service of the book is snort-worthy and touching. And timely, as we are all becoming more aware of where our food comes from.
- The extremely wide range of recipes, from classics like ham gratins, to new spins on traditional food, like steamed ham buns, make Ham a useful kitchen resource. If there’s a way to include ham in a dish, they have found it.
- Two words: blueberry ketchup (picture below). Whether or not I’m pairing it with ham, this recipe (page 33) will be a part of my repertoire from now on.
- Although recipes are clearly marked when it’s possible to halve them and the authors offer copious ways to use up ham leftovers, a good portion of the recipes in the book are meant to serve a crowd. Unsurprising when dealing with a large muscle like ham, but kind of a bummer when you’re cooking for one.
- Shredding ham really is a pain in the patootie. Unless you’re a dedicated stir-fryer with a full-on wok, just dice the ham for quicker meal prep.
- If you’re a vegetarian, don’t read this book—there’s nothing in it for you. Or do read this book, because it’s filled with instances of animals raised and killed humanely, which is an important point to get across in a factory-farmed culture like ours.
Pasta with Prosciutto Crudo, Peas and Parmigiano-Reggiano Recipe (page 99)
Prosciutto’s price tag often relegates it to “special-occasion food” status, but there’s a surprisingly affordable option that doesn’t skimp on flavor. Check your local Italian market for “prosciutto ends”—the pieces that are left on the leg after the butcher’s wafer-thin slicing has worn it down to the nubbin. These chunky bits can be frozen (meat is easier to slice thin when cold) and keep for about three months. Chop them up as needed for recipes like this one that call for diced prosciutto—and a good deal of it to boot..
Makes four servings
Ingredients for Pasta with Prosciutto, Peas and Parmesan:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 6 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 1/4 cup)
- 1 medium shallot, minced
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 6 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto crudo, diced (about 1/2 cup)
- 2 cups fresh shelled or frozen peas (unthawed)
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1 lb. dried pasta in the shape of your choice
- 3 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
How to make Pasta with Prosciutto, Peas and Parmesan:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the pasta, cooking until just al dente. Drain and toss with a bit of olive oil while you make the sauce.
- Pour the oil into a large skillet over medium heat and add the garlic, shallot, and red pepper flakes. Stir often until the shallot softens, about two minutes.
- Add the prosciutto and cook until the diced pieces begin to brown evenly, about two minutes more.
- Add the peas and cook for about a minute (frozen peas will just begin to thaw out), then add the chicken broth and bring the sauce to a simmer.
- Add the reserved pasta and pepper, and stir well to incorporate all the ingredients.
- Sprinkle in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss to coat. Serve with additional cheese at the table, if desired.