Whence cured pork for Easter? Well, the pig has always been a Christian meat, given its ubiquity in the Latin world, where all parts of it were consumed but for the oink.
That it was commonly slaughtered in the fall, its fresh meat eaten throughout the winter, and its salted, dried and cured portions ready in the springtime, may explain the timing.
Before you rush to the store to purchase your Easter ham, here are some tips on picking the meat, wine pairings, ways to use leftovers and even clever ways to prepare it in a slow cooker.
A ham primer
A whole ham typically weighs more than 10 pounds. That’s a large hunk to wrestle with in a roasting pan, which is why you’ll find so many half hams (whole hams cut in half). But if you’re feeding a lot of people, you might consider it.
With a bone-in ham, plan on 1/3 to 1/2 pound of meat per person (or 2 to 3 servings per pound), or more if you want leftovers. For a boneless ham, figure about 1/4 pound per person, or more for leftovers.
The answer is purely a matter of preference, though the taste and cost are factors to consider.
A ham labeled “butt end” comes from the upper thigh, closer to the hip. It typically costs a bit more, and is fattier and meatier. Carving can be an issue with the butt end because of its irregularly shaped aitch bone. A ham labeled “shank end” is larger, so you’ll get more servings out of it. It’s easier to carve, has less fat and costs less.
A boneless ham costs more than shank and butt portions, but there’s also less waste and you will get more servings. Boneless will have a binder that holds it together in one solid piece.
As for flavor, many cooks and meat experts would agree that choosing a ham with the bone in provides more flavor. And you can use the leftover bone to make soup.
Spiral-sliced hams are sliced in a spiral fashion around the bone, making serving easy. But you need to watch them closely because they can dry out when reheated. Allow 10 to 18 minutes per pound reheating time for a whole or half spiral-sliced ham. I’ve had good luck reheating spiral-sliced hams cut side down in the roasting pan.
Ham labeled fully cooked needs a gentle rewarming in the oven. Most package directions recommend heating ham in a 325-degree oven. Set it out at room temperature for about an hour before placing in the oven. This way, it won’t take as long to reach the recommended internal temperature.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the center of the ham needs to reach 140 degrees to fully reheat. Figure 18 to 24 minutes per pound for half bone-in hams and 10 to 15 minutes for boneless. Allow 15 to 18 minutes per pound when reheating a whole ham.
Glazes often contain a lot of sugar, which can burn, so many recipes call for adding them toward the end of cooking. But they keep the ham moist. You can apply some at the beginning of cooking (make sure the ham is covered with foil) and again after it has reached the 135-degree mark.
This year, make your Easter ham effortless by ditching the oven and using your slow cooker instead. While most people think about slow cooking for staples like chili and stew, it’s also perfect for center-of-the-plate feasts — like an Easter ham.
Using the slow cooker, you can minimize both prep and cleanup time, leaving plenty of room in the day for church, hunting eggs and enjoying time with your loved ones.
For a fresh spin on the classic ham, try this sweet Southern slow-cooker ham recipe from the National Pork Board. Apple cider and bourbon (or vanilla extract, if you prefer) combine to create a rich flavor complemented by the sweetness of brown sugar.
Round out your Easter menu by pairing ham with classic sides such as oven-roasted carrots, asparagus wrapped in bacon and mashed sweet potatoes.
American-style ham is salty, and that (and consequent high umami) is its bugaboo with wine. Such foods can skew the taste of red wine in particular toward the dull, flat, astringent and bitter. Best to select white wines, or dry pink wines (matching the color is a nice fillip), that are high in countervailing acidity.
“When I was visiting Burgundy,” says Fernando Beteta, a Chicago-based master sommelier, “we always had starters of jambon persille (ham in parsley aspic) with a premier cru Chablis. It has great acidity, really gets under your tongue.”
• 2011 Boudin Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume “La Chantemerle,” Burgundy, France: No oak to interrupt the stony, mineral-laden scents wafting above lemony, green apple-y flavors, all framed by piercing acidity; gorgeous and electric at once. $25-$30
• 2013 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Rose “White Pinot Noir,” Willamette Valley, Oregon: Macerated, full cluster fruit, stirred lees and a tad of wood aging strips color but adds great complexity plus layers of aroma and flavor in this eerily beautiful dry pink. $20-$22
• 2013 Inman Family Wines Rose of Pinot Noir “Endless Crush,” Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California: A favorite every year, only getting better; gorgeous salmon color, waves of aroma of strawberry and Jolly Rancher watermelon; gob-smacking juicy flavor, fine acidity. $25
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Using leftovers for soup
At the close of the meal, the ham bone is lying on the cutting board, a bit bereft and ravaged.
No need to wait until your company has left before you start making stock for soup.
Cut off any significant chunks of ham and refrigerate them to use later to finish the soup. Then heft that ham bone into your biggest stock pot, fill it with water and bring it to a simmer.
If you can excuse yourself gracefully from your company, you can add the rest of the ingredients that will make up the stock — carrots and celery cut in chunks, with some celery leaves to throw in, an quartered onion, a few peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves. You can do all this in less than 10 minutes. But if you can’t leave your guests alone, add the vegetables as soon as they leave.
Let the soup simmer for up to two hours — long enough to squeeze every bit of flavor out of the ingredients, but not so much that you simmer away the liquid (add more water if the level drops too low).
And that’s it for making stock. Almost as easy — and painless — as cooking the ham itself.
Next step is to defat the stock. Refrigerate the hot stock until it has cooled and the fat has risen to the top and solidified.
Then turn to the medley of vegetables called mirepoix — carrots, celery and onion — which will be diced and sauteed in a little olive oil before being added to the stock to cook further. Split peas will be tossed in at this point, either the green or yellow variety. Simmer them in the stock for half an hour, or until the peas are tender. At that point, the leftover ham, cut into bite-size chunks, is added and heated through. Puree the soup or not, as you wish.
And another meal is ready, whether or not there’s a crowd at the table.