On Easter Sunday, after the sugar crash from too much candy, dinner traditionally revolves around a big, glossy ham. It may look picture-perfect as a holiday centerpiece, but if that ham came from the supermarket, its origin story is probably not so pretty.
Luckily, there are options in locally produced hams with backstories you can feel good about. Ember Crivellaro, who runs Country Time Farm in Berks County with her husband, Paul, wants those who buy her hams to know what kind of life the pigs had. Because pictures speak louder than words, she carries a small collection of photographs in her wallet. The pictures show Country Time pigs basking in the sun or cavorting in the grass. It's a dramatically different scene than the cramped, dirty conditions conventional pigs endure.
"We just want to show people we take care of our animals," says Paul. "We're a really small farm."
To put that in perspective, says Paul, a conventional producer will have something like 4,000 pigs. The Crivellaros have about 200 pigs on their land at any given time.
Unfortunately, local hams such as those from Country Time are a rarity on dinner tables, even on such special occasions as Easter Sunday. In spite of their superior flavor and texture, locally produced hams are often overlooked in favor of the mass-produced versions you find at the supermarket. To make up for a factory-farmed pig's lack of flavor, those commercially produced hams are pumped up with a flavor-enhancing liquid - often as much as 10 percent by weight.
"The mass-produced hams are also steamed, which only amplifies the sogginess," says Nick Macri, owner of La Divisa Meats at Reading Terminal Market. And while those hams are dramatically cheaper, they don't compare to the slow-roasted ham Macri makes from Country Time Pigs or the smoked hams made by the Crivellaros themselves.
Many local chefs are big fans of Country Time Pork - it's frequently name-dropped in menu descriptions around town - for the same reasons Ember Crivellaro shows off the photos. "They are ethical about what they produce," says Macri, who buys two hogs each week from Country Time for his charcuterie stall.
Starting with this high-quality pork, Macri makes a European-style slow-roasted ham. It's decidedly savory, a far cry from the sweet, spongy hams we associate with Easter. The meat is more dense and fine-grained. Macri removes the bone before brining his ham for 12 days in a mixture of brown sugar, salt, garlic, bay leaves, allspice, and black pepper. After a thorough air-drying that lasts for 24 hours, it's roasted in a 275-degree oven for eight to nine hours. Only then is it ready to sell.
Compare that with a conventional ham, which is produced from start to finish in about two days, thanks to artificial ingredients and a disregard for animal welfare, and the price difference starts to make sense.
"Hatfield, for example, slaughters 8,000 hogs a day," says Paul Crivellaro. "That's how they maintain such a low price point." (Spiral-cut Easter hams are selling for about $5 to $7 a pound locally and are on sale for as low as 99 cents a pound.)
A whole ham from La Divisa Meats weighs about nine pounds and costs $180. It also feeds an army. If your crowd is smaller, you can buy La Divisa ham by the pound or ounce, sliced to whatever thickness you prefer.
For the holiday meal, Macri suggests quickly browning thick slices on a hot grill or warming up the ham wrapped in foil in a low oven. He likes to serve with traditional Easter sides, such as a potato salad freshened up for spring with some asparagus. (For those who want to take their Easter in an Italian direction, La Divisa porchetta, seasoned with chilies, fennel, and garlic, is also an appealing local option.)
Another style of traditional ham is not cooked at all, but cured. Italian prosciutto is the most famous example, and Tony Page, owner of Rooster Street Provisions in Lancaster, has given this type of ham a Pennsylvania twist with his Keystone Ham.
First, he covers the raw leg with sea salt. Then it's pressed and cured for about two weeks; next, the salt is rinsed, and the ham hangs in a cold room (under 40 degrees) for one to two months. At this point, it's ready for the aging process, during which the complex flavors emerge in the meat. It's rubbed with black pepper and lard, and it matures for six additional months.
"You would never cook a ham like this," says Page. "It's best sliced thin and layered on a biscuit or draped over warm scrambled eggs." In other words, it's the ideal local ham for Easter brunch.
For this style, the quality of the pigs is even more important than with a cooked ham. "If you try to cure conventional meat like this, it's not going to taste right. Around the fourth month of aging, the fat on an animal like that becomes bitter, and the meat tastes like nothing," says Page. He doesn't start buying pigs from a farm until he has explored the property personally to ensure that certain standards are being met.
To source his meat, Page looks for small-scale operations that let the pigs roam freely. "We put animal welfare first and want to see a hands-on approach at the farms we work with." That means no clipped tails, no nose rings, and no antibiotics. His hams are made from pigs that forage among pine trees and are fed the good stuff - such as GMO-free sorghum, barley, and wheat. Lancaster County's Creek Place in East Earl and Sweet Stem in Lititz are two of the handful of farms that make the cut for Rooster Street products.
Of course, Page makes other Easter-friendly options for those who want to serve a hot ham dish. His boneless smoked ham is brined with apples and brandy and sells for $8.99 a pound. For a traditional Easter dinner, Page recommends serving this ham warm after a round of deviled eggs and followed by his rich banana cream pie.
Country Time hams will be available at the Phoenixville farmers' market (300 Mill St.) from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. Call the farm to reserve your ham at 610-562-2090.
Hams may also be available at Fair Food Farmstand (at Reading Terminal Market at 12th & Arch Streets). Call 215-386-5211 to check availability.
La Divisa hams will be available at La Divisa (at Reading Terminal Market at 12th & Arch Streets). Call 215-627-2100 to place your order.
Rooster Street hams will be available at Rooster Street (17 W. High St., Elizabethtown, Lancaster County). Call 717-481-0088 to place your order.
Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText
6 eggs, hard-boiled, cut in half lengthwise and yolks removed
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons sriracha or other hot sauce
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 sliced cooked bacon, crumbledEndTextStartText
1. Place the egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on medium speed until the yolks are smooth, about 1 minute.
2. Add the mayonnaise, mustard, sriracha, chives, and lime juice, and mix until smooth and creamy, about another minute. Season with salt and pepper, and spoon the yolk mixture into the egg white halves.
3. Divide the crumbled bacon evenly over the eggs, and serve immediately.
Per Serving: 128 calories; 8 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 10 grams fat; 173 milligrams cholesterol; 281 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
11/2 pounds small red potatoes
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and blanched
1 cup parsley leaves, loosely packed
1/2 cup mint leaves, loosely packedEndTextStartText
1. To make the dressing, combine the shallot, extra-virgin olive oil, mustard, and sherry vinegar in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Whisk well to blend. Set aside.
2. Place the potatoes in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook until fork tender, about 15 minutes.
3. Drain the potatoes, and rinse in cold water. Halve the potatoes, and add them to the reserved dressing. Add the asparagus, parsley, and mint, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 179 calories; 4 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol;
17 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 6-8 servings
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 9-inch graham cracker pie shell, baked
2 large bananas, sliced
Whipped cream (optional)
Shaved chocolate (optional)
1. To make the cream filling, combine the cream, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla bean, and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and then reduce heat so the mixture just barely bubbles. Cook until thickened, about two more minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Temper the eggs by stirring in about a cup of the hot half-and-half mixture a few tablespoons at a time to gradually warm the egg yolks. Then whisk the tempered eggs yolks into the hot half-and-half mixture. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it returns to a boil, about two more minutes.
3. Transfer the cream filling to a bowl, remove the vanilla bean, press plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin from forming, and chill for 30 minutes.
4. Spread one-third of the cream filling on the bottom of the pie shell and top with half the banana slices. Spread another one-third of the cream filling over the banana slices, and top with the remaining banana slices. Spread the remaining custard on top, making sure to cover the bananas completely to prevent browning. Refrigerate overnight.
5. When ready to serve, cut the pie into wedges, and top with shaved chocolate and whipped cream,
Per Serving (based on 8, without optional ingredients):
473 calories; 4 grams protein; 57 grams carbohydrates;
40 grams sugar; 27 grams fat; 193 milligrams cholesterol;
341 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.