My dad grew up in West Virginia, and is a true lover of good 'ol Southern food. Biscuits and gravy, slow-smoked ribs, fried chicken, creamy potato salad, braised greens, key lime pie, and country ham with red-eye gravy. Now, I've been hearing about country ham for a good long while, but having grown up in Texas, which isn't really the South (but definitely shares many qualities), I had actually never tasted it.
Country hams have a long history in the South. These traditional American hams are salt-cured, usually in a salt brine, which dries them out and preserves them (this is how succulent pig legs were preserved prior to refrigeration). They are then typically smoked, although there are very delicious examples of unsmoked country ham. From what I can tell, the best seem to come from Virginia or North Carollna. In fact, you might have heard of Virginia ham or Smithfield ham, which are both examples of country hams from Virginia. Smithfield hams seem to be the most highly revered, and are aged longer than other country hams. Apparently they are also more deeply flavored and saltier. Each region seems to have their own particular style.
So, this past weekend, for my dad's 70th birthday, we decided to not only fly up to Portland and surprise him, but also give him a true-blue (well, it wasn't really blue) country ham. In fact, we even went one step further, and threw him a birthday party where he, and the ham, were the guests of honor.
But getting the ham did take some planning. First, you need to find a reputable place that sells real, exceptional country hams. I had read an article about Calhoun's Country Hams in Saveur, and so I thought, not really knowing where else to turn, to give them a call. I was greeted on the phone with true down-home Southern hospitality. They answered all my questions, and I figured out what I wanted: a 15-lb (the smallest available) uncooked bone-in country ham, which takes about 7-10 business days to ship. Because the hams are salt-cured, you do not have to refrigerate them, as long as you keep them in a cool place (like my brother's basement, next to his Kegerator) and make sure they stay nice and dry.
We served my dad's ham as part of a huge Southern birthday feast, complete with buttermilk biscuits, hush puppies, scalloped leeks and potatoes, roasted asparagus, and sauteed collard greens with apple cider vinegar. To top it all off, we ended with a tall citrus cake. My dad was in heaven. And frankly, after tasting the ham, so was I.
How to Make Yourself a Real Good Country Ham
Cooking a country ham is easy, but takes some time. The first thing you need to do is to scrub the ham clean with a vegetable scrub brush and some warm water, it's best to do this in the sink. I recommend trying this prior to drinking. Although that did make for some interesting fun. There will likely be bits of mold here and there, but that's normal and nothing to worry about.
Next, find a big container. I find that a cooler works best. You want something large enough to submerge the entire ham. Lie the ham in the container and fully submerge it in cold water. The reason for doing this is to suck some of that salt out. Like I said above, these hams are salt-cured and very salty. And if you aren't used to it, like me, then it's best to soak your ham. Soak the ham for about 24 to 48 hours. Yep, you heard me right. And change the water as often as you can, maybe every 4 to 8 hours or so. There's no sense soaking it in salt water if you are trying to remove some of the salt.
Once your ham is clean and soaked, remove it from the water, and put it in the largest stockpot or deep roasting pan you can find. Again, you want to submerge it. The largest pot we had was actually a canning pot and still the top of the bone stuck out, but that's fine, as long as the bulk of the ham is under water.
Fill the pot with enough water to cover the ham, cover the pot loosely with foil, and set it on the stovetop. Bring the water to a slow rolling boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain the slow boil. Boil the ham for about 3 hours or so. You want it to come to about 140°F at the thickest part of the ham.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the ham from the pot and set in a large roasting pan or a rimmed baking sheet (you can double this up to make sure it's nice and sturdy). Use a sharp knife to trim as much fat from the ham as possible. There will likely be quite a bit.
In a bowl, stir together about 1/3 cup brown sugar with about 1 tablespoon grainy mustard until it's like a paste. Slather it all over the ham. With your hands. Don't be afraid. Bake the ham for about 15 minutes until the paste glazes the ham and it looks all bubbly and delicious.
Carve the ham using a very sharp knife, cutting the ham into the thinnest slices you can.
Calhoun's Country Hams
219 South East Street
Culpeper, VA 22701