Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Making of a Ham

For years, Joe and I have been trying to add more and more healthier foods into our already varied diet.  I say already varied because this is what happens when you have one person who lived in Europe and Asia marry another person who, while she never lived abroad, had parents who were foodies before it was cool.   While we don’t go for weird or too far out there, Joe and I have always been willing to try new cuisines.  Our first official date was to an Indian restaurant.  Neither of us had ever eaten Indian food, but we were game and we’ve never looked back.

During our financially lean years, our food choices and variety were a bit limited, as well as my time to prepare them.  This is what happens when you go from being DINKS to being first-time parents on a first-year airline pilot’s salary and a stay-at-home mom.  It was our choice,yes, but the smaller salary than a first-year teacher was quite a shock to the system! 

We did the best we could, but there was a lot of Hamburger Helper eaten in our house during those first couple of years.  It was quick, easy and inexpensive; all things that I needed to feed my family.  I used as much fresh food as I could and even made my own baby food, but our budget just couldn’t swing the organic foods that were becoming vogue.  Occasionally, I’d look at the organic milk prices and gag.  Who in their right mind would pay that much for organic milk??? 

Thanks to some savvy friends, I started thinking that I really should be feeding my kids at least some organic foods if at all possible when Jamie was a baby.  I’d just have to make a few more concessions.   At his nine-month check-up, Jamie fell off of the growth charts.  He was not growing as fast or as much as his peers.  After tons and tons of testing, the docs diagnosed him with short-stature resulting from a benign genetic anomaly.  One chromosomal anomaly came from Joe that in and of itself, causes very few people to stand up and take notice.  However, when it is paired with the Cystic Fibrosis gene that Jamie inherited from me, the resulting side effects can lead to short stature and infertility. 

To give our boy a fighting chance at achieving his maximum height and to rid him and his sisters of as much unnecessary hormones/pesticides, we traded the regular grocery store, hormone-added milk with the organic milk.  Over time, we’ve started adding other organic dairy, meats, fruits and veggies.  While not everything we eat is organic, I read labels more and try to get the least processed food items that I can, except for certain comfort or snack foods like Doritos or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.   :-)

Organic dairy, fruits, veggies, chicken and beef have been somewhat mainstream for a while now.  Living in a small city, I make do with what I can.  As the kids have gotten older and need me less, I have more time to make more and more things from scratch so that helps.  That Hamburger Helper that I used to rely on so heavily when the kids were tiny?  Well, I can make an ever better version from scratch.  Case in point: I went away on my Mommy Girls’ Weekend last year and, when I came home, the kids raged about the “AWFUL” thing Dad had made them.  That “AWFUL” thing -- Hamburger Helper from the box.  When I informed them that I make it for them they insisted the box version was nothing like my homemade version!! 

While I could easily get organic beef and poultry, although not cheaply, I could rarely find organic pork.  That was tough because this family LOVES pork – ham, bacon, chops, roasts, bacon, bacon, bacon, you name it!  I mentioned this in passing one day to my massage terrorist to which he commented that he had a friend that raised organic, free-range pigs.  Well, glory be! 

I started out tentatively, getting some organic pork sausage.  After that, we went “whole hog” and split the cost of a pig with friends who were also trying to go towards a more organic lifestyle.  I started clearing out the freezer to make room for our half of a piggy.  Being true to form in my love for animals, I felt badly on the day that our porker was taken to the processor – translation: butcher.  Ernest, our processor, is a good old Southern gentleman.  I missed about every third word when he called to discuss what cuts of pork we wanted.  Having never ordered up a half of a pig, I was clueless.  I told him that we’d like some chops, some ribs, ham, bacon, and ground pork, but I’d leave the details up to him.  When I hung up the phone, I told Joe I had no idea what we were going to get. 

When the time came to go and get our piggy parts, we piled all of the kids into the car and drove the forty-five minutes to Ernest’s shop.  We wanted the kids to know kind of where their food came from.  Ernest, we discovered, has a soft spot for kids.  Jamie was crashed in the car having just returned from a Boy Scout function and Michelle was frantically working on homework, but Josie was all eyes and ears.  Ernest was in his element.  He took her and Joe and me through the coolers where there were carcasses of wild pig, deer and cow hanging.  We went past two Muslim gentlemen who were busily butchering a goat and peered into the “parts” bin.  Josie asked intelligent questions and was interested in everything from the carcasses to the equipment Ernest used in his craft. 
Freezer full of Fred 
Fred, as we had christened our pig that gave his life for us, took up one and half shelves in our freezer and was, when we did the math, much cheaper than even the non-organic pork from the grocery store.  The chops were thick, as was the bacon, and the hams were HUGE, but alas, uncured.  We got everything that we asked for and even a few extra bones in case I get a hankering to make some split pea soup, which, unless my parents come for a visit soon, I probably won’t.

As I’ve mentioned, we love ham and bacon, but I had no idea how to cure a ham.  I got on the Internet to see if anyone else did though.  Sure enough, there were several sites that guaranteed that I too could easily make my own ham and bacon!  All I needed were a few simple ingredients and some time.  The only thing I didn’t have was saltpeter aka, pink curing salt.  Enter Amazon. <g>

I thawed out a ham that was bigger than the cat, made my brine, stuck the ham into the largest stock pot that I owned, stuffed it into the fridge and prayed that in a week’s time, I’d have a ham and not a ten pound botulism infested hunk of organic pork.  After the allotted time, I pulled it out of the stockpot.  It looked like ham, but it still needed to be cooked.  I slathered it with brown sugar and maple syrup and put it in the oven to cook slowly throughout the afternoon.  Hour by hour, the house began to smell more and more like ham.  Dinnertime came and we sat down to taste home-cured ham of Fred, mashed potatoes and asparagus.  Fred was oh so delicious and no one died of botulism.  It truly was as easy as the websites made it out to be and the result was so much cheaper, tender and healthier than what we could have bought in the store.   Despite initially being so far out of my cooking element, I had done it. 
One very large thawed ham

One brine

Deposit the ham in the brine.

Put in the fridge for a week.

After a week, rinse off the brine.

Cover it with brown sugar and maple syrup and slowly bake it.

Paired with taters and a veggie - delicious!

Next up… home-cured bacon.
Bacon ready for its' brine.

Homemade deliciousness!!!!!

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