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Ham for Easter

When it comes to Easter dinner, the choices boil down to lamb and ham. Lamb has the edge when it comes to Christian symbolism, but ham has its ardent supporters. Not only is it delicious, it's perfect for a large gathering - a whole ham can serve up to 20 people.

But ham is also one of the most confusing cuts of meat you can buy. And so, this Easter, we bring you this ham primer.

WHAT IS A HAM?

"Ham" simply means the hind leg of a pig. Usually, however, the term refers to a cured hind leg. To cure, in culinary terms, is to preserve, and there are two major ways of preserving ham, with salt and with smoke.

DRY CURING

Dry-cured hams are preserved by coating them with salt and aging them until the meat dries out - in the case of prosciutto from Italy and serrano from Spain, that takes well over a year.

SMOKING

Sometimes dry-cured hams are also smoked, such as American country hams (e.g., Smithfield, Virginia). They must be exhaustively soaked and then boiled to make them palatable.

WET CURED AND SMOKED:

Good ol' AMERICAN HAMWet-cured hams used to be soaked in brine (salt water), but today they are commonly injected with brine, which speeds up the cure. The classic American ham - what you see piling up at the supermarket this time of year - is wet-cured and then smoked.

BREAKING A LEG

Whole hams are actually less common than halves. At the market you will see shank halves (from the hoof end) and butt halves (no explanation necessary). The butt has more meat, but it also contains a bone structure that's tricky to carve around. A semi-boneless ham will be easier to carve. The easiest ham to carve is the spiral-cut ham, which has been pre-sliced at the factory; a few well-aimed cuts by you is all it needs to surrender.

WHAT IS NOT A HAM

A product labeled, simply, "ham" derives at least 20.5 percent of its weight from meat. But manufacturers like to pump their hams up with water - a cheap way to get them to weigh more. The FDA is on to this and mandates the following labeling standards: "Ham with natural juices" contains at least 18.5 percent meat by weight; "ham water added" contains at least 17 percent meat by weight; "ham and water product" is anything that contains less than 17 percent meat by weight, and the label also must note how much of that weight is water.

Fresh hams benefit from a long, slow roast . The vast majority of cured supermarket hams have already been cooked and need only to be heated through; this will still take a couple of hours because they are so big.

Supermarket hams tend to come with cooking instructions, but here's all there is to it: Put the ham in a roasting pan (if it's a half ham, place it cut-side down). Put the pan in a 325-degree oven and cook about 10 minutes per pound. (You can speed up the cooking by taking the ham out of the refrigerator up to 2 hours before cooking.)

When an instant-read thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the ham (but not touching the bone) reads 135 to 140 degrees, take it out and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If you'd like to glaze the ham, do so about 20 minutes before you take it out of the oven.

FRESH HAM WITH CHUTNEY GLAZE

While sweet glazes are traditional, fresh hams do well with a more balanced flavor combination. In this recipe by Scott Peacock, executive chef at Watershed in Atlanta and co-author, with Edna Lewis, of "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf, $32.50), the glaze has a hint of sweetness from jarred chutney and a kick of spice from hot sauce. And to keep things easy, the dish is finished by adding halved new potatoes to the pan drippings during the final 45 minutes of roasting. An instant side dish with almost no extra effort. Recipe from The Associated Press.

10-pound bone-in fresh half ham (shank or butt) with skin intact

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup mango chutney

2 cups chicken broth

1 to 2 tablespoons hot sauce

1 head of garlic, cloves skinned

1 large yellow onion, quartered

2 pounds new potatoes, halved

1. About 30 minutes before cooking, remove the ham from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature. If your butcher has not already done so, cut away any excess fat, but leave the skin and the fat under it intact.

2. While the ham sits, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Use a knife to cut a diamond hatch pattern over the surface of the ham. To do this, cut multiple lines first in one direction, then in the other. You should cut just through the skin and into, but not through, the layer of fat beneath it.

3. When the oven is hot, place an empty roasting pan in the oven on the middle rack. Liberally sprinkle the ham with salt, pepper and the oil. Remove the roasting pan from the oven and carefully place the ham, cut side down, in it. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the skin turns golden brown.

4. Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, combine the chutney, broth and hot sauce. Puree until smooth.

5. Reduce oven heat to 325 degrees. Remove the ham from the oven. Scatter the garlic and onions into the pan around the ham, then use a large spoon to liberally baste the ham with a bit of the glaze. Reserve the remaining glaze.

6. Cover the ham with parchment paper, then with foil. Bake for another 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours, basting with the reserved glaze every 30 minutes. If you run out of glaze, baste using the liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan.

7. About 45 minutes before the ham is done, fill the roasting pan around it with the potatoes. Toss gently to coat with the drippings.

8. The ham is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted at the thickest part of the meat (without touching bone) reads 160 degrees. Remove the roast from the pan and let it rest on a cutting board for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain any remaining juices in the pan into a gravy bowl and serve with roast. Makes 10 servings.

GLAZED HAM WITH MUSTARD SAUCE

In this recipe from his "Complete Book of Pork" (HarperCollins, $29.95), Bruce Aidells notes that "while a sweet glaze makes for a glorious presentation, it only flavors the outside of each ham slice. I also like to serve an accompanying sauce that guests can add to their ham to suit their own tastes." To make a half ham, about 8 pounds, halve the quantities and shorten the cooking time accordingly.

1 16- to 20-pound whole bone-in or boneless ham

For glaze

2 to 3 cups water, chicken broth or apple cider

1/2 cup Dijon mustard

1 cup finely chopped canned pineapple

1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar

For sauce

Chicken broth

1 tablespoon blackstrap or dark unsulfured molasses

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Trim external fat to a thickness of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Lay ham fat side up in a sturdy roasting pan, and roast for about 21/2 to 3 hours, about 10 minutes a pound. At 21/2 hours, begin monitoring the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When it reaches 130 degrees, remove ham from oven.

2. Turn oven up to 425. Pour water, stock or cider into the pan to a 1/2-inch depth. Score the ham's surface in a diamond pattern. Brush mustard over the entire top of the ham. In a small bowl, combine the pineapple and sugar and, using a large spoon, spread it over the top of the ham, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Return ham to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it has browned. Remove ham from oven, place on a cutting board and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, scrape up any bits of ham stuck to the bottom of the pan into the pan juices. Pour this into a 1-quart glass measuring cup. Discard any surface fat and add enough chicken stock to make 2 cups. Strain into a saucepan and stir in the molasses, brown sugar and mustard; bring to a boil. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir the cornstarch solution and pour it into the pan. Boil, stirring, until the sauce just thickens. Pour into a gravy boat and serve with ham. Makes 15 to 20 servings.

LEFTOVER HAM BAKED IN MILK

A friend reminded me that one definition of eternity is "two people and a ham." Accordingly, here's one way to use up leftovers, adapted from "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, $25).

Leftover ham, sliced no thicker than 1 1/2 inches

Dijon mustard

Brown sugar, optional

Whole milk

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Put the ham in a shallow baking dish just large enough to comfortably contain it. If slices are thin, you can layer them a bit. Spread some mustard on top of the ham and, if desired, sprinkle on the brown sugar. Pour enough milk over and around the ham to almost cover it. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, basting occasionally, until the milk has clotted and browned.

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