A holiday meal isn't complete without a ham.
In my Southern family, no holiday is complete without pork. We start each new year with a traditional "good luck" meal of pork chops, black-eyed peas, and greens. On Easter, we skip the lamb in favor of a Smithfield Spiral Ham, glazed with brown sugar and crowned with pineapple rings. Our Fourth of July barbecue is pit-cooked pulled pork, served with crunchy red cole slaw and hush puppies. But the best swine of all is saved for Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my mother's baby brother slow bakes a fresh ham.
Compared to the cured and pre-cooked hams we all know and love, Uncle Mike's Magic Ham tastes like a different animal entirely. The meat is so tender it falls off the bone in buttery flakes that melt in your mouth. The flavor is pure pork, unadulterated by smoke or brine.
In an attempt to recreate the heavenly ham of my youth for Bay Area friends, I discovered that raw, fresh hams are harder to come by than the ubiquitous cured and cooked grocery store varieties. Fortunately, high-quality, fresh ham can be had—for a price. In addition, it's easy to find locally made, fully cooked artisan hams that will cure you of any craving for mass-produced "commodity" versions.
Compared to beef, lamb and fish, pork is some of the least expensive protein available. Traditional grocery stores sell commodity ham for as little as $1.50 per pound. On the other hand, if you're concerned about the living conditions of the animals, or the way the meat is processed, you can expect to pay $8.00 or more per pound. You can also expect to be glad you did, once you taste the difference. The locally available artisan hams listed here are worth every extra penny.
Fatted Calf's Fresh Heritage Pork Ham
Uncle Mike's Magic Ham can only be made from fresh ham, and Fatted Calf is one of the best places to find high-quality versions. Their whole hams come from heritage-breed pigs that are pasture-raised and certified humane. According to Fatted Calf proprietress Toponia Miller, "since they have plenty of room to roam and live more natural lives, their muscles are more developed and more flavorful."
Weighing in at a whopping 18 to 24 pounds, these fresh hams can handle a huge family feast. Miller says, "Ham can refer to a variety of cuts and preparations, so it is important to be sure you know what to ask for when ordering from your butcher. If you are looking for a fresh ham, be sure to specify the weight, whether you want it skin-on or skinless, and bone-in or boneless. If you are getting just part of the ham, you may want to be specific about which end or muscle you would like."
A properly cooked, skin-on ham will produce irresistibly addictive slabs of crisp, chewy pig skin attached to a tender layer of fat that dissolves on contact with your tongue. It will also produce copious amounts of fat, which can be used to make gravy by the gallon.
"Although skin-on hams can have a beautiful, thick layer of fat on the outside, the muscles that comprise the ham tend to be very lean. Brining and slow cooking or smoking help to keep the ham tender and juicy." She says her favorite preparation comes from Pino Luongo's Simply Tuscan cookbook—whole fresh ham roasted with chestnut honey and champagne.
To make Uncle Mike's Magic Ham, start with a bone-in, skin-off, whole fresh ham. Rub it generously with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder, and let that sit in the refrigerator for a few hours to a few days. The night before the feast, place the ham in a roasting pan and cover it tightly with aluminum foil. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, place the ham inside, and forget about it. Cook for 1 hour per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees. Remove it from the oven and let it rest for 30 to 90 minutes. Serve it DIY-style on a pan with edges, alongside a frighteningly large knife.
Where to buy it:
- Fatted Calf San Francisco: 320 Fell St. (Hayes Valley), 415-400-5614, fattedcalf.com
- Fatted Calf Napa: The Oxbow Public Market, 644 C First St., 707-256-3684, oxbowpublicmarket.com
Price: $8.00 per pound