Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Hamtasmagoria revisited.

Last year, I bought a giant ham at Whole Foods after a quest for pork shank turned into something much, much bigger. We ate that fourteen pound beast many different ways – roasted, of course, but then recycled into a quick ragù, sliced for a brothy noodle soup, as enchiladas with pickled onion and chipotles, and in other modes not chronicled here.

Recently, I found myself standing in front of the meat counter at the 14th & P Whole Foods picking up a well-marbled prime rib roast when the butcher asked me if I wanted anything else. While he’d been wrapping the beef in brown paper, my eye had wandered to a giant ham over to the left, on the pork end of the case. I’ll hand it to Whole Foods – occasionally, mostly at the holidays, they get a fairly impressive pork display going. They were showing off perfectly tied crown rib roasts as well, which you never see anymore, and are straight out of the Mad Men era of entertaining. The ham probably would’ve caught my eye under any circumstances, but this was a particularly beautiful specimen because – unlike any other pork I’ve ever seen at Whole Foods – it retained a thick layer of creamy white fat AND the skin. The skin! I have complained bitterly about the propensity of Whole Foods to go trimming-crazy when it comes to pork – they slice away every last remnant of fat from the surface, leaving none of what makes pork so delicious and rich. And you never see the skin at Whole Foods. I gestured toward the giant ham.

The butcher’s eyes lit up. You could tell that he was tired of dealing with a clientele accustomed to cryovac’ed pork tenderloin and boneless chicken breasts. He actually put it on a square of butcher’s paper and hurried it around the counter so I could have a closer look. The skin was creamy, not blotchy, and the fat was bright. The meat was dusky pink, virtually the color of prosciutto. He had two hams as it turned out – the giant, longish-legged specimen that looked like a whole country ham before the curing, and a stubbier, more oblong ham that was about the shape of a hard-boiled egg sliced the long way. I hesitated, weighing the virtues. The meat on the oblong ham looked slightly nicer and the fat and skin encased the ham completely. The giant ham, with its leggy, clublike aspect, would have been great for curing, but it probably wouldn’t fit in my drying box, and the skin and fat had been trimmed away on one side. “My husband’s going to kill me,” I told the butcher as I considered. “I told him I was going to try to clear out some space in the refrigerator but I just keep buying product.”

“It takes a special lady to bring home this kind of meat,” he said.


In the end, I chose the oblong ham for its superior meat and greater supply of skin and fat. My husband was pleased, recalling the feast from last year.

Cooking is a learning process always. Every day in the kitchen is an opportunity for improvement and a chance to use what worked before, and reconsider what didn’t. Last year, I roasted the ham at 325F, and it was good, although the interior closer to the bone wasn’t as tender as it should have been. We ate the exterior of the ham and I returned the rest to the oven for a later roasting. I imagine that, had I contined to roast the entire beast in one shot, it would have been somewhat dry. This time, I considered the cut of meat somewhat more carefully. The ham is a tough, well-exercised cut with a lot of connective tissue, much like the shoulder or the butt. Picture the pig as you would a human on all fours – the shoulder/butt end is the deltoids and rhomboids; the ham is the glutes and biceps femoralis. Big muscles, long fibers. And the particular ham I bought was sheathed thickly in fat and skin, like the belly. So I treated it as I would treat those cuts.

Because of its thick skin and ample fat, I elected to cure and air-dry it as I have done with pork belly. I scored the skin through the fat, and rubbed a mixture of salt and sugar into the deep cuts. Uncovered, the ham rested in the refrigerator for a couple of days, the better to dehydrate the fat and skin. Each day, I dried the liquid that the salt leached from the fat with a paper towel. After a few days, I roasted the meat on a rack – first in a blisteringly hot oven to melt the fat and crisp the skin, and then in a very low oven to break down the collagen. The meat rested for nearly an hour out of the oven.

The result, after seven hours, was extraordinary. I intended to slice through the ham perpendicular to the bone, but the moment the knife penetrated the crisp skin, the meat fell apart, cleaving into moist chunks. Two days later, cold from the refrigerator, the long-fibered chunks of pinkish meat were tender and unctuous.

Fresh ham

Whole fresh ham isn’t all that easy to come by, but is worth seeking. Your best bet is a butcher – not the butcher’s department in the supermarket, unless yours takes special orders. Italian meat markets are the most likely to carry the whole fresh ham.

One more thing, in the interest of full disclosure. Years of breeding to produce “the other white meat” and assiduous packaging have led many to believe that pork smells more or less like chicken breast. Well, it doesn’t. Especially not whole ham. Remember that discussion we had a few weeks ago about barnyardiness, and the compound responsible for that quality? If you buy a whole ham, be prepared to visit the barnyard, especially when you first bring home the ham. To mitigate the aroma, I recommend rinsing the ham when you first remove the packaging, and then drying it well before scoring the skin and applying the salt cure. Don’t worry – it won’t stink up the refrigerator. In fact, as it dries, you won’t smell it at all. Once you roast the meat, the smell will emerge during the initial hot phase – use rosemary to avoid problems, as its own pungency masks the skatole surprisingly well.

1 9 lb fresh ham
leaves from 8-10 branches thyme, minced
1/4 c kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar
8 cloves garlic confit, smashed to a paste
Several branches rosemary

Combine the salt and sugar.

Score the skin on the ham in a diamond pattern in 1″ intervals, being careful not to cut through to the meat. Use an extremely sharp knife and lead with the tip of the knife, or the heel, and be very careful. Rub the salt and sugar mixture in the cuts and on the surface of the meat and skin. Place in the smallest pan that leaves all the skin exposed (a 1/4 steam tray is good) and refrigerate, uncovered, for two to three days. Every day, dry the liquid that accumulates in the cuts with a paper towel.

Oven 450F/230C.

Remove the ham from refrigeration and rub the surface of the meat only with garlic confit paste and place the thyme branches on the garlic-rubbed ham (the paste will help the thyme adhere). Set on a v-rack in a roasting pan. Dry the cuts in the fat thoroughly with a paper towel. Place the ham in the oven. Place the rosemary branches on a sheet of foil and place on the floor of the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the ham 180 degrees. After 15 more minutes, turn the heat down to 185F/85C. Remove the ham from the oven and prick the fat with a fork wherever exposed to promote melting during the final roasting. Lay additional thyme branches on the surface of the skin and return to the oven.

Roast approximately 50 minutes per pound or until the meat is 165F/74C near the bone. For a 9 pound ham, it probably will take about seven hours. Remove and rest before slicing for about 45-60 minutes.

Before the knife.

Under the knife.

Bonus: Lard

Roasting a giant ham with a jacket of fat will yield quite a bit of pork fat. This ham, for example, provided approximately a quart. Don’t throw it out! Because of its rich texture and clean, neutral taste, it makes great biscuits, pie crust, and is great for frying pretty much anything. In addition, it may surprise you to learn that pork fat is not primarily saturated fat. Although pork fat is approximately 40% saturated fat, the remainder is unsaturated fat, primarily monounsaturated fat. Because pork fat is low in polyunsaturated fat, it does not turn rancid quickly and has a relatively high smoke point of about 370F/177C.

To clarify the the fat, pour it off from the roasting pan and let it solidify. You should have two layers – one of solid fat, and another of meat jelly. Scrape off the jelly and reserve it for another use (it’s basically concentrated meat juices and is great for stock or bouillon).

Melt the remaining fat over low heat and then strain it through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a sealable container. Label and date the lid with permanent marker. The fat will keep for up to a year in the freezer or several months under refrigeration.

Italian, Lamb., Offal, Pasta, Random Thoughts, Science

The story of the lamb, as told by the belly.

We didn’t eat lamb in my house when I was growing up. It wasn’t a taste my family enjoyed. As I understood it, this anti-lamb sentiment had its origins in my father’s graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin. Back in the Sixties, he shared a house on Johnson Street with a couple of guys – also foreign students – who enjoyed cooking lamb at every opportunity. More accurately, in my dad’s recounting, they enjoyed cooking cheap cuts of lamb day and night with the kitchen windows closed, filling the house with the pungent, fatty odor, putting him off lamb for good.

On account of that experience, my mother never cooked lamb, and the only time I remember trying it as a kid was during Thanksgiving weekend 1978. We went up to Wausau, up in north central Wisconsin, where my dad’s friends and fellow political science colleagues Joe and Angie Burger lived in an old farmhouse. Maybe it’s because Joe is Czech, or something, but instead of turkey, we had mutton for the holiday. Unless you have an inside source, mutton is pretty hard to come by these days in the United States, for good reason. It’s a really tough, strongly-flavored meat. It’s basically adult sheep – lamb past its eating prime – and even back then I don’t think our dinner was retail mutton, if you get my drift. I wasn’t expecting Thanksgiving mutton, and I don’t think my dad was, either. Like any polite adult, he sliced it up, put it in his mouth piece by piece, and chewed, staring straight ahead and chasing it with wine. I don’t know if I ate it or just moved it around my plate under my Brussels sprouts. My three year-old brother was a real glutton for turkey and I think he might have cried when confronted with the mutton. All I remember for sure about that holiday was that my brother split his chin open getting out of the tub, and driving around the woods of northern Wisconsin, going deer hunting with the professors. Kind of a bloody weekend, in retrospect.

So my family’s shared food narrative, at least through the early 2000s, was that we did not eat lamb. My dad hated it, my brother hated it, I hated it, and whatever my mother really may have thought of lamb, I never saw it pass her lips. Then around 2003, in London, my dad ordered the lamb at dinner one night. “I thought you hated lamb,” I said, completely shocked. “Oh, sure,” he shrugged. “But that was before I had British lamb. British lamb is delicious. So tender and mild.” What was going on here? Had the British government kidnapped my father and replaced him with a surrogate? My now-husband looked down at his plate, smirking. He loves lamb and is always going on about how it’s so full of “lamby goodness.” I was outnumbered, Lisa Simpson in a land of lamb-eaters.

I like lamb now. There’s still something about the taste – I can’t eat too much of it. If you’re like me, and find the taste of lamb a little funky, maybe it’s the lamb, not you. According to culinary scientist par excellence Harold McGee, the distinctive taste of lamb may be down in part to the presence of skatole, a compound that comes from grazing on clover and alfalfa, and contributes a “barnyardy” element to pork as well, at least in the fattier cuts of heritage breeds. And it’s true – that flavor hasn’t been sanitized out of lamb in the way of today’s “other white meat”-style pork loin. Other reputable sources report that alkyl- and thiophenols are responsible for the characteristic “lambiness” of lamb, as is thymol – one of the phenolic compounds responsible for thyme’s distinctive quality. That seems plausible, because you definitely can get too much skatole. Present in both the meat and fat, skatole can push lamb past the smell of goats and sheep out in the pasture, beyond hay, toward manure and worse, and is responsible for the rich, mulchy, faintly rotting smell of jasmine and orange blossom as well. In other words, “barnyardy” is a polite term for something more pungent, since skatole shares the same origins as the word “scatological.” You get where I’m going with this, so if you have an uncomfortable relationship with lamb, that could be why. Strangely, as much as the pungency of skatole can put me off, the dish that brought me over to the lamb side was a frugal sauté of potato scraps in lamb fat.

No part of the animal tastes more of the lamb than its belly. Also known as the breast, the belly is the tough cut from the outside of the ribcage along the chest of the lamb. If the loin chops represent the loin eye inside the rib bones as they curve down from the spine, the belly represents the the muscle and fat layer outside the rib cage as it closes along the sternum. Lamb is by definition young, tender, and relatively lean, and the lamb belly is neither as thick nor as fatty as the corresponding portion of the pig, nor is it as tough. Even so, it can be prepared in the same way – braised, cooked sous vide at low temperatures, cured like bacon. And, unlike pork belly, it has not become ridiculously expensive. If you can find it – and in this case, a willingness to work with bigger cuts of meat and an unhealthy interest in wielding large knives is useful – you can have lamb breast for next to nothing. Use the butchered bone cut for Scotch broth or Irish stew.

Thirty six hour lamb belly, orzo gratin

This may seem an esoteric preparation using an esoteric cut of meat. Not so! As I said above, lamb breast is cheap, almost a throwaway cut. The low, slow, sous vide/low temperature cooking method involves some equipment investment, but it is simple. If you don’t have the equipment, you can braise. Use the same method as pork belly braising – instructions are included. It won’t take quite as long.

The use of Activa transglutaminase permits you to glue together the relatively thin cuts of lamb belly into thicker cuts about the size of pork belly. Its use is optional and definitely esoteric. The lamb depicted below is a doubled cut bonded with Activa RM and cooked sous vide at 140F/60C.

Two lamb breasts, on the bone (sizes will vary; you will need to weigh)
kosher salt, 1% by weight or roughly 1 tsp per pound
sugar, .5% by weight, or roughly 1/2 tsp per pound
garlic confit, one per tsp of salt
thyme branches
optional: Activa transglutaminase (RM or GS), 0.75% by weight

Cut each belly from the bone in a flat piece. Weigh and calculate the required amount of salt and sugar. Combine the salt, sugar, and garlic confit; rub on both sides of each belly. Lay atop thyme branches and place thyme on the top side as well. Cover and weight. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, up to 72.

If using Activa to make double-thick portions of belly, scrape off any garlic paste and sprinkle Activa RM powder or spray Activa GS slurry on the meat side of each belly. Press together and tie. Seal with a few thyme leaves in vacuum bags and weight. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, up to 24. If not using Activa, simply seal with the vacuum bags and proceed.



Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C. The meat will be cooked just to medium.

Alternatively, if not cooking sous vide/low temp, place a pot large enough to hold the belly over medium heat. Bring just enough chicken stock to cover the bellies to a simmer with bay leaf, thyme branches, and garlic confit. Add the bellies, and then place in a 220F oven for three hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid. The meat will not be pink as pictured below because of the increased heat.

Remove from the circulator (or oven) and unpack. (If not preparing immediately, follow appropriate chilling and storage procedures.) Cut into squares. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Place the lamb belly squares, meat side-down, for about 30 seconds; turn over to skin side-down and brown for another minute.

Serve with orzo gratin and Brussels sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, drained on towels, and sautéed in hot duck fat.

36 hour belly.

Orzo gratin

It’s basically just macaroni and cheese. Sheep’s milk cheese complements the lamb belly nicely; black truffle is a classic winter pairing. If you don’t want to deal with the lamb belly, at least make the gratin.

Why do I toss the orzo with oil when it is common knowledge that you should not oil your pasta any more than you should rinse it in cold water before saucing? Because baked pastas tend to absorb large quantities of liquid, and if you don’t coat your orzo with the merest bit of oil before baking, it will emerge from the oven pasty, oily, and mushy, not coated with a creamy, cheesy sauce. The oil protects the orzo, which is so small and has so much surface area that it cannot withstand much contact with sauce before soaking it all up.

8 oz orzo
1 tsp grapeseed or other neutral oil (or clarified butter)
3 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
3 tbsp Wondra
one small onion, peeled and small dice 1/4″
2 c whole milk
5 oz Sottocenere al tartufo, coarsely shredded
3 oz Robiola (inside only) or another mixed sheep’s milk cheese
one black truffle, thinly sliced
salt (truffle salt would be a great choice)
1/2 c fresh breadcrumbs
thyme leaves

Oven 400F/205C.

Cook the orzo in salted, boiling water until just al dente and drain. Do not rinse. Toss in colander to break up lumps. When cool, stir with 1 tsp neutral-flavored oil or clarified butter. Set aside.

Place a saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Add the onion and sweat until tender. Do not brown. Add the rest of the butter and, when melted, add the Wondra. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to cook out the floury taste. Add the milk, slowly, stirring. Bring to a simmer and cook out to a bubbling and somewhat thickened texture, about ten minutes. Strain through a chinois into vitaprep (or blender) and add the cheeses. Purée.

Season with salt. Combine with orzo and thinly shaved truffle slices. Pour into a gratin dish. Top with breadcrumbs mixed with thyme. Bake until bubbling and browned.

Orzo gratin

Orzo gratin, sottocenere al tartufo, sliced burgundy truffle.