Hamming it up

Gammon and spinach: a classic combination

"With a roly poly, gammon and spinach

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley."

That's how the old song goes. I have always had a wild desire to have a restaurant called Gammon and Spinach - decorated in shades of pink and green, and serving only huge slabs of juicy pink ham and steaming bowls of emerald-coloured spinach.

I'm only joking, of course. I'm inspired by a fond memory of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a ridiculous sketch which involved one of them opening a restaurant in the middle of Dartmoor, called La Grenouille au Peche. The absurd clincher to this already barmy scheme was that there were only two dishes on the menu: a frog stuffed with a peach and - yes, you've guessed it - a peach stuffed with a frog. The colour scheme was not mentioned, but I imagine it would have been green and pink, too.

Parts of the pig, whether salted or not, seem to have a real affinity with greens. Gammon and spinach apart, in another culinary idiom altogether, the Chinese cook pork and greens together to good effect.The pork in question is belly, nice and fatty and with a layer of crisp skin whose salty crunch never fails to amaze. You can see these burnished bellies hanging in steamy windows in Chinatown, constantly being taken down from their hooks, sliced into lozenges and deftly laid over a pile of Asian greens that have been briefly stewed in soy.

It is always a disappointment when crackling fails to crackle. There are many reasons for failure, but the main one is too little fat lying directly under the skin - most pigs nowadays being bred to be lean.

So when you roast a leg, loin or shoulder of pork , don't be surprised if the skin turns out like brown leather. However, belly of pork has a natural stratum of fat all the way through. This, I find, is rather like puff pastry: layers of damp solids, including fats, which swell and crisp up when subjected to intense heat.

Now to gammon and spinach. This is a divine combination, particularly English in its make-up. The spinach is creamed with nutmeg and some bechamel. Plain cream does not really work in this recipe, as it is absorbed into the spinach too quickly and turns towards a buttery texture rather than a proper creaminess. But if you use a thin bechamel, it will coat the spinach and become part of the dish rather than superfluously enriching it.

The gammon can be from a variety of cuts. I particularly favour a small hock or two (one hock can feed three or four people), but a boned and rolled joint is just fine. "Gammon" refers only to a leg joint, which is more expensive than a shoulder cut; but I believe the latter has more flavour, and it also has more fat in it - to my mind, no bad thing.

Sliced crisp belly pork with greens, serves 6

Ask the butcher to score the skin of the pork finely and to remove the bones, which should be chopped up and given to you to take home. The greens to use are up to you. If you wish to be authentic, use Chinese bok choy or mustard greens. Otherwise, choose young spinach leaves or Swiss chard.

700g/l12 lb fatty belly pork, scored and boned

1 heaped tbsp Chinese 5-spice mixture

2 tsp ground white pepper

1 level tbsp sea salt

for the stock

900ml/134 pints water

85ml/3fl oz soy sauce, e.g. Kikomann

85ml/3fl oz dry sherry

1 tbsp honey

5-6 slices fresh ginger

1 small bunch spring onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, bashed

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

4 strips orange rind

bones from the pork

6 heads bok choy, 12 leaves Swiss chard (plus stalks), or 1.4kg/31b spinach (supermarkets sell it ready-washed in 750g bags; you will need 2)

to serve

few slices green and red chilli

sprigs fresh coriander

Start the recipe the day before you want to eat it.

Set to boil a large pot of water (about 10 pints). Lay the belly pork on a cooling rack over a deep tray, skin side uppermost. With a ladle, pour the boiling water over the skin until it is all used up. Discard the water. Turn the belly pork over on to a large tray and rub the meat with the 5-spice mixture and pepper, working them in well. Now turn over once more and rub the coarse salt into the skin. Hang the meat up to dry overnight, in a cool, draughty place.

Preheat the oven to 240C/475F/gas mark 9.

Mix all the stock ingredients into a bowl and pour into a deep roasting tin. Over this, suspend the same cooling rack as you used before and place the pork on it, skin side up. Roast for 10 minutes at the top of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and cook for a further 45 minutes. Now take the pork out, top up the liquid with water if necessary, and turn the oven to full heat once more. Once back up to temperature, return the pork to the oven and roast for a final 10 minutes or so. This seems to have the magical effect of producing fabulously crisp skin.

Allow the pork to cool on the rack, set over another tin, and strain the liquid from the roasting tin into a small pan. Keep warm.

Steam (or briefly boil) the bok choy, Swiss chard or spinach until tender, and keep warm. If using bok choy or Swiss chard, slice it into manageable pieces, but if you are using spinach, leave as it is. Place on a serving dish. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut the pork as thinly as you can. Lay over the chosen greens in overlapping slices and spoon over some of the roasting juices (any left over can be stored in the freezer for future use). Sprinkle over the chilli and decorate with sprigs of coriander. Note: this dish may be best served at room temperature.

Gammon and spinach, serves 6

900-g/2-1b piece boneless gammon or shoulder

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 onions, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

2 bay leaves

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

12 peppercorns

for the bechamel

285ml/12 pint milk

2 cloves

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

salt

55g/2oz butter

55g/2oz flour 85ml/3fl oz single cream

freshly grated nutmeg

pepper

1.4kg/31b washed spinach, briefly blanched in salted boiling water, drained, refreshed in very cold running water, squeezed out by hand until completely dry, then finely chopped

Put the ham into a large pan and cover with cold water. Bring just to the boil and drain into a colander. Discard the water and rinse the ham under cold running water. Put it back into the pan, just cover with cold water and add the vegetables, herbs and peppercorns. Bring up to a simmer and gently cook for about 112 hours. The meat is ready when it is tender enough to be pierced right through with a skewer. Keep warm in this cooking water.

Heat together the milk, cloves, onion and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover, and allow the flavours to mingle for about 12 hour. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two. Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth. On the lowest possible heat, set the sauce to cook. You may think that it is very thick, but this is intentional, so that it has enough body to hold the chopped spinach in suspension, Do not cover the sauce; stir from time to time with a wooden spoon and cook for about 15 minutes. Add cream, nutmeg, pepper and chopped spinach, mix in thoroughly, check for seasoning and heat through for a few minutes.

Lift the skin from the ham (or not - I quite like it left on) and slice thickly on to a hot platter. Serve the creamed spinach in a handsome bowl and serve separately. Serve with buttered new potatoes

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