It’s a tradition among American Southerners to serve ham, collard greens, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to bring good luck for the coming year. In my family, that means country ham—a salt cured ham made in rural parts of the region, including Virginia, my home state; North Carolina, where my maternal grandparents were born; South Carolina, where I currently live; and others nearby such as Georgia and Tennessee.
To make these hams, they are salt cured for one to three months and then hardwood smoked, usually over hickory, before being aged. Aging can take from several months to 2 or 3 years, depending on the fat content of the meat. Typically, they are sold unrefrigerated, wrapped in heavy paper, and secured in a cotton bag. Since I travel to Virginia to see family around Christmas, I buy mine at Spivey’s Market in Emporia.
The taste of country ham is salty and smoking makes the meat red. It’s similar to prosciutto, but prosciutto is not smoked, the meat is moister, and usually more thinly cut.
Tim and I are looking forward to hosting a large group of friends on Sunday evening. Along with the ham, we’ll have collard greens, Hoppin’ John (a Southern recipe for black-eye peas), scalloped potatoes, spoon bread, deviled eggs, and a pickle and relish tray. To get a head start, I began soaking the ham on Wednesday and cooked it last night according to my mother’s recipe, ensuring it will be moist and tender.
Here’s what Mom taught me.
A store-bought ham should be soaked for 24 or more hours to partially re-hydrate the meat and relieve it of some of its saltiness. I usually aim for a day and a half, changing the water at least twice. To cook a medium ham (about 12 pounds), preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, put the ham in a roasting pan (fat side up) with 2 cups of water and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Cook at high heat until you can smell the ham (usually 30 to 40 minutes), before lowering the heat to 350 degrees F and cooking for another 2 and a half hours. Then, turn off the oven and let it cool down without opening.
Sounds easy right? Well, here’s the secret trick to make it a snap—you begin cooking the ham at 7 or 8 p.m. and then turn the oven off before going to bed, letting the ham sit in the oven all night. In the morning, take the ham out, remove the foil, let the ham come to room temperature, and then wrap it before refrigerating. The pan drippings are like gold, save them for cooking the collards.
Before serving the ham on Sunday, I’ll trim away the skin and some of the fat. For the best slices of meat, I’ll cut through the thickest part of the ham toward the center bone.
The country ham looked and smelled great this morning when it came out of the oven. Tim and I had a little taste, too, before wrapping it and tucking it away.
What about your New Year’s Day? I would love to hear what you have planned!