For most people, the Christmas ham conjures images of a clove-studded spiral of pink and smoky-sweet meat. But in our cure-your-own era of nose-to-tail charcuterie, those who have tackled the project of a "fresh" ham - one that's not been cured, cooked, or smoked - know the holiday centerpiece can be something altogether different.
Think more of a traditional roast pork writ large, a majestic 20-pound joint of pig with a band of skin wrapped around its shanks - still scored like a crackly pinecone, but with meat inside that's white and savory with juice. And thrifty, too.
"We always got a fresh ham when I was a young cook in New York and we wanted to throw a party," says Terence Feury.
Now a chef-partner at Tavro 13 in Swedesboro, the former Fork, Ritz-Carlton, and Striped Bass chef has a $200 rack of prime rib dry-aging for his traditional family celebration for Christmas Day.
The fresh ham I bought at Cannuli's Meats in the Italian Market to replicate Feury's recipe? It cost $39 for a 21-pounder - literally a fifth the cost of that prime rib, about half as expensive as Cannuli's spiral-sliced smoked ham, and far less pricey than the 17-pound spiral being sold at Williams-Sonoma for $180.
Of course, the fresh ham is ultimately a very different creature from those smoked varieties in texture, flavor, and look (the pink comes from special curing salts with sodium nitrate). But for those with the DIY instinct, there are few cuts of pig that are as satisfying a canvas as that rear haunch - provided you have the refrigerator space and lead time to attempt chef Feury's feast.
A dry cure of two to three days is essential (with three days preferable), as the rub of kosher salt and brown sugar - bolstered with fresh thyme and Christmasy clove - reduces liquid content and intensifies the flavors. Place as many vegetables as you can - carrots, cippolini onions, garlic heads, and turnips - in the braising pan below the roasting rack, and you'll have two tremendous dishes in one.
For sides, Feury offers some handy, do-ahead tricks. The Duchess potatoes, mashed spuds enriched with egg, piped into swirls, and baked to order, are a classic throwback to his banquet days at the Waldorf Astoria. He uses a froth of soubise - a buttery puree of onion, leek, and fennel - to enrich his "creamless" creamed spinach.
The most surprising touch, though, comes from his inventive Three Kings Orange Chutney, thin slices of citrus that are steeped three times in a boiling syrup infused with aromatic cumin, cinnamon, coriander, and caraway. The rinds become less bitter with each successive blanching. And by the end, each slice, laid atop a morsel of meat, lends the pork a balanced burst of exotic bittersweet. Think of the orange as cranberry sauce.
Even better, the recipe makes far more of this orange condiment than your guests are likely to eat, which means there's plenty of syrup left for other creative uses: "Cocktails!" says the chef.
Feury's fresh Christmas ham has its festive fringe benefits, indeed.
Makes 20 servings
1 fresh bone-in ham (from the hindquarters) about 20 pounds, "half-skinned" by butcher so about 5 inches of skin remain around the shank bone
For the cure:
1 1/4 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup picked fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped rosemary
4 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
To roast in pan below the ham:
2 bunches organic carrots, peeled
1 pound cippolini onions, peeled (but not purchased prepeeled)
4 heads of garlic, split whole through middle
8-10 small turnips (no bigger than a lacrosse ball), well-cleaned, but unpeeled
For the pan gravy:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 shallot, minced
4 sprigs of fresh thyme 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 cups chicken stock
1. Score the skin of the ham in a crisscross pattern with a straight-edged razor blade or a very sharp knife (or let butcher do this). Mix all ingredients for the cure well and rub all over the ham. Let the ham sit uncovered in the refrigerator, preferably on a rack so air can circulate around it, for 3 days (2 days minimum).
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the carrots, onions, garlic, and turnips in the bottom of a roasting pan, with split side of garlic facing down. Brush some of the excess, undissolved cure off the ham, and place it fat-side up on a roasting rack. Cook approximately 12-15 minutes per pound. If the ham gets too brown, cover with foil (especially the end not covered with skin, which cooks faster).
3. Check internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the ham, at the center joint, where the large bones meet. When temperature of 140 degrees is reached, lower temperature to lowest setting (about 175 degrees, if possible) and hold for at least an hour. When internal temperature reaches 155 degrees, remove the ham from oven and let rest, covered with foil, for at least a half hour, or until ready to serve.
4. While ham rests, make pan gravy: Remove all the vegetables from under the roasting rack and set aside. Pour off remaining juices into a fat separator, pour off fat, and set aside. Place roasting pan over medium-high flame, add olive oil, garlic, and shallots and sweat until transluscent. Add stock and herbs. Bring to a boil and reduce by half. Add reserved ham juices and simmer to blend, a couple of minutes. Gravy should be rich, but not thickened. Strain and serve.
Per serving: 580 calories, 42 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 230 milligrams cholesterol, 626 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
A note on carving: Feel free to present the entire ham to your guests, but this massive roast is best carved in sections in the kitchen and presented on a platter in slices surrounded by the pan-roasted vegetables. Typically, the top of the ham roasts faster than the bottom (and the exposed meat faster than meat covered by skin), so begin by slicing off chunks from the top, so bottom can continue cooking in oven, if necessary. Also, while crackly skin is nice to offer, beware serving too much residual cure from the crust, which, unabsorbed, can be very salty.
Makes 10 servings
2 navel oranges, split and sliced as thinly as possible into half-circles.
1/2 quart water
1 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon toasted and ground coriander seed
1/2 tablespoon toasted and ground cumin seed
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon toasted and ground caraway seed
1. Combine the water, sugar, and spices and bring to a boil. Place the orange slices in a large metal mixing bowl and pour the spice syrup over the slices. 2. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature until cool, at least 4 hours. Drain the syrup, return to a boil, and repeat the process two more times. Oranges will lose bitterness with each soaking.
3. Drain the oranges and store in a jar until ready to serve. Leftover oranges can be stored in syrup in the refrigerator for up to one month. Strain excess syrup to use in holiday cocktails.
Note: If you plan to make cocktails with syrup from the oranges, double the recipe.
Per serving: 97 calories, trace protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 10 servings
½ pound unsalted butter
1 white onion, thinly sliced
1 leek, white part only, sliced and washed
1 small head of fennel, sliced thin
Salt and white pepper, to taste
1 cup water
3 pounds washed baby spinach (or 3 bunches of green Swiss chard, stemmed, chopped, and washed thoroughly)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. For the soubise onion puree: Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot on low heat. Add the onion, leek, and fennel. Season well with salt and white pepper. Cook slowly on no more than medium heat until the vegetables start to get tender and translucent, about 15-20 minutes. But make sure they do not brown. Add the water, cover tightly, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. When vegetables are very tender, puree until smooth in a blender. The mixture should resemble a frothy, creamy soup. This can be done up to one day in advance.
3. To finish, just before service: Gently warm the soubise, and set aside. Heat olive oil over high heat in a large Dutch oven, and sweat the spinach (or chard stems first, then leaves) until tender. Fold in the onion puree and heat through. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 231 calories, 5 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 22 grams fat, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 246 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 10 servings
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 cup milk, hot but not boiling
1/2 pound unsalted butter
Salt and white pepper, to taste
3 egg yolks
1. For potato puree: Warm oven to 300 degrees. Add potatoes to large pot of cold, salted water. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender, about 8-10 minutes. Potatoes should just break apart against side of the pot when pressed with a wooden spoon.
2. Drain and place potatoes on sheet tray, then place in warmed oven for 5 minutes to allow excess liquid to evaporate (this allows potatoes to absorb more milk and butter). Pass potatoes through a ricer or food mill.
3. Melt butter into milk, then add to potatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Once mixture is warm, but no longer hot, add yolks, blend well, and reserve. Can be done up to a day in advance. If doing ahead, be sure to bring potatoes to room temperature for about 30 minutes before finishing, stirring with a spatula to soften.
4. To finish: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put potatoes into a piping bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe onto a nonstick baking sheet (or a standard pan lined with buttered parchment paper), swirling potatoes like a soft-serve ice cream cone.
5. Bake in oven for 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned.
Per serving: 320 calories, 5 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 114 milligrams cholesterol, 215 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at email@example.com or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.