Ham it up

Cheap, simple to cook and endlessly versatile: Mark Hix gets to grips with a good old English hock
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I can still remember the smell of simmering ham at my grandparents. It was a weekly ritual for Gran, and several meals would evolve from the ham pot. The joint was quite often a simple ham hock, occasionally a rolled shoulder joint that had cost next to nothing from the Co-op, especially with the Green Shield stamps. She wasn't that adventurous with it, but pea soup, and ham and parsley sauce were the meals that stick in my mind, and then there were sandwiches with Branston pickle the following day.

I can still remember the smell of simmering ham at my grandparents. It was a weekly ritual for Gran, and several meals would evolve from the ham pot. The joint was quite often a simple ham hock, occasionally a rolled shoulder joint that had cost next to nothing from the Co-op, especially with the Green Shield stamps. She wasn't that adventurous with it, but pea soup, and ham and parsley sauce were the meals that stick in my mind, and then there were sandwiches with Branston pickle the following day.

Cooking your own ham offers so much more than just the meat. If you cook vegetables like whole peeled onions, carrots, potatoes and turnips in the pot with the ham it gives them a delicious natural salty flavour. Then you can make soup with the broth.

Butchers normally have ham hocks in stock, and they are incredibly cheap for something that can provide up to three meals. But you rarely see them in supermarkets as they are a bit ugly-looking and have quite a lot of fat on the outside. Ham comes from the hind leg of the pig above the hock joint, and is cut from the carcass and cured by salting and drying, and sometimes, smoking. If, like Parma or Iberico hams, they're hung for a long time, they continue to last for months at room temperature. Gammon is the same joint as ham but left attached to the side when bacon is cured, and then cut off. That's why it has a more bacon-like flavour.

Apart from ham hocks, if you buy gammon or shoulder cuts they are normally offered smoked or unsmoked and will usually need an overnight soak. Smaller shoulder cuts and gammon often come pre-packed with cooking and soaking instructions on the label, and all they'll need is a couple of hours' boiling in water. If they're not labelled, reckon on cooking for around an hour per kilo, though you can't really overcook ham, and it's better than undercooking it.

When such a good thing is so simple to cook, there's no call for buying slices of plastic ham that bear no resemblance to the real McCoy. And I love this old-fashioned English way of cooking where you create several meals from a simple and cheap cut of meat. I even like to use the rind once it's been boiled, just fried and then stewed with some fresh borlotti or broad beans and rosemary.

On a little coastal escape one weekend I popped into The Butley-Orford Oysterage in Suffolk. Round the back I homed in on Richardson's Smokehouse (Baker's Lane, Orford, 01394 450103) for some delicious honey roast, smoked ham hocks to take away, along with lots of other interesting-looking goodies. At first I thought £4.80 was a bit steep for a blackened piece of ham. I can't imagine why I thought that; it must have been the sea air, because once I'd started carving it up it just went on forever. The meat didn't compare with its synthetic-looking rivals for quality and taste, either, never mind the price.

For these recipes I'll concentrate on hocks, but feel free to replace them with other cuts such as shoulder or a gammon joint if you can't find them. Once you've boiled a ham I promise you won't go back to the slices in packets.

Boiling a ham hock and making pea soup

Soup serves 4-6

If you are going to boil a ham why not make pea soup at the same time. You can also make this with fresh or frozen peas, but they will need to go in the stock for about 5 minutes only. In Victorian London this soup was known as London Particular; and the thick fogs of that time were nicknamed pea-soupers after it. You will find lots of different types of dried peas these days: quick soak, whole, split and so on. Any will do, you just need to soak ahead a bit. The size of the ham doesn't really matter if you are making soup and cooking ham for the family, so just buy whatever size you need and follow the cooking instructions.

1 ham knuckle or a joint of ham for boiling (soaked in water overnight if necessary)
30g butter
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
A few sprigs of thyme
250g green split peas soaked overnight
Freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently cook the onion for a few minutes until soft without colouring. Add the thyme, drained, soaked peas and ham and cover well with cold water. Bring to the boil and skim.

Add some freshly ground black pepper (not salt) and simmer for about 2 hours or according to the cooking instructions on the ham. By this time the peas should be soft and beginning to fall apart – if not, remove the ham and continue cooking until they are soft. Cooking times can vary, depending on how old the peas are.

Once the peas are cooked, blend them with about three-quarters of the liquid in a liquidiser, as coarsely or as smoothly as you wish, and add a little more liquid if it's too thick. Check the seasoning and add a little salt and more pepper if necessary. Shred some of the ham, add it to the soup and simmer for a few more minutes before serving.

Pease pudding

I promised more about this a couple of weeks back, and here it is. Except it doesn't need a recipe. Traditionally pease pudding was made simply by tying some pre-soaked yellow split peas in a muslin bag and dropping it into the pot with the ham. Once cooked it would be taken out and eaten in slices or spoonfuls, or sliced and fried or baked with butter. If you don't fancy the sound of that the pudding can be made the same way as the soup above. Once the soaked peas have cooked (time depends on the peas; quick-soak ones take only 30 minutes' cooking) drain off some of the stock so you end up with a sort of thick mushy-pea-type mix. Then put it into a pan and mix in some ham trimmings and a knob of butter. Either type of pease pudding goes really well with boiled ham or game dishes. Or for something extravagant, a few years ago I had the most amazing pan-fried foie gras with pease pudding cooked by Richard Corrigan, the chef-owner of The Lindsay House in Soho. (Put it back on the menu, Corrigan.)

Parsley sauce

Serves 4-6

This always goes down well with some thick slices of ham and mashed potato or pease pudding. You can use this sauce with fish by replacing the ham cooking liquid with fish stock.

30g butter
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
20g flour
1tsp English mustard
150ml milk mixed with 150ml ham cooking liquid
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp double cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan and gently cook the shallots on a low heat for about a minute until soft. Add the flour and mustard and stir well, then gradually add the milk and stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to the boil, season with a little salt and freshly ground white pepper and simmer gently for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often. The sauce should be quite thick by now; if not, simmer a little longer. Add the double cream and parsley and simmer for another minute or so.

Jambon persillé

Serves 6-8

A classic dish on all traiteur counters in France. It's not too difficult to make and will keep for a week or so. It's perfect with some crusty baguette, Dijon or Moutarde de Meaux and, of course, crunchy tangy little cornichons. Try making in time for Christmas and serve on Boxing Day with the cold turkey.

1 ham hock weighing about 1kg or a ham joint weighing about 700g and soaked if necessary
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
3 sticks of celery
10 black peppercorns
To set the ham
12g (4 sheets) of gelatine
2tbsp chopped parsley

Put the ham joint into a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 2 hours, until the ham is tender. Check to see if the water needs topping up. Cooking time will vary according to the cut and size of the ham (most pre-packed hams will come with cooking times on the packet). Remove the ham from the liquid and leave to cool.

For a ham this size you will need to remove about 1/3 litre of the cooking liquid to set it. A hock will generally produce more natural gelatine than a leaner joint so add a third less gelatine – around 3 sheets instead of 4 – if you are using a hock.

Soak the gelatine leaves in a shallow bowl of cold water for a minute or so until soft. Squeeze out the water and add to the hot cooking liquor with the parsley, and stir until dissolved. Leave somewhere to cool but do not let it set. Meanwhile trim off fat and cut the ham into rough 1cm cubes. Put the meat into either a suitable-sized terrine mould or a rectangular container. When the jelly is cool pour it over the ham until just covered (you may have some extra left which you can discard) and give it a stir with a spoon. Cover with clingfilm and leave to set in the fridge overnight.

To serve, dip the terrine into a bowl of boiling water for about 15 seconds and turn it upside down on to a chopping board. With a carving knife cut it into 2cm-thick slices and serve on to plates or alternatively scoop straight from the mould with a large spoon.

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