My mother called. She and her man had ham-in-the-can for Easter dinner. Her voice was filled with a mixture of disgust and disappointment. The meal was nearly inedible, she reports, with a foul odor and sci-fi texture that she couldn't erase from her memory. She would be making ham salad out of the leftovers, which I translated as man-made meat with mayonnaise.
A few days earlier, one of my favorite cantankerous people ranted about baked ham, the canned ham's slightly better-looking sibling.
"It tastes too much like flesh," he hissed. I couldn't agree more. Even all doctored up at home with brown sugar, pineapple rings or a bed of clove studs, the wet-cured ham of America is among the weirdest things to put on your plate.
There's not enough time to get into dry-cured country hams, so I'll get right to the point: Scrap the can and buy a fresh ham.
If you're thinking that "fresh ham" sounds like an oxymoron, you should stop. The word "ham" refers to the part of the pig (hip and hind leg) rather than how it's processed. Translated, fresh ham is a big ol' pork roast cushioned by a thick layer of fat that flavors the meat -- meat that tastes like meat and not like a can.
Fresh Ham Roasted with Rye Bread and Dried-Fruit Stuffing
Adapted from Molly O'Neill, in the March 27, 1994, issue of New York Times Magazine
1 fresh ham, boned and butterflied, about 18 pounds (adjust spice rub and stuffing amounts accordingly for a smaller ham)
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, crushed
4 teaspoons salt
Black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups rye bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 tart apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup chicken broth
Have a butcher bone and butterfly the ham and score the fat in a diamond pattern.
Combine 5 cloves of the garlic, 2 1/2 teaspoons of the caraway seeds, 3 teaspoons of the salt and pepper to taste, and rub the mixture over the inside and outside of the pork. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat olive oil in a skillet, add the remaining 2 cloves garlic and the onion, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Let cool.
Place cooled onion-garlic mixture in a bowl with bread cubes, dried fruit, apple, rosemary, egg, remaining 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, remaining teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste. Mix until well-combined.
Chill if necessary. You don't want to put hot stuffing into cold meat.
Open out the pork, spread the stuffing, fold the pork around it and tie securely with twine. Place in a large, deep roasting pan and pour in the chicken broth.
Bake, basting from time to time, until the roast reaches 160 degrees, when an instant-read thermometer is inserted in the meat, about 3 1/2 hours. (Alternatively about 15 minutes per pound, depending on speed of your oven.)
Let stand for 15 minutes.
Degrease pan juice, serve separately. Slice meat.