We had an open house kind of party on New Year's Day and without reflecting too deeply on my hubris (I guess if I had, I wouldn't have committed it), I bought a country ham at Schnuck's, the Memphis grocery store with some local cred. They stock several types, but I went for Tripp's, because I've been to their place and they were really nice. Oh, and the ham is great. Melissa Petersen wrote about it for the debut issue of Edible Memphis (where you can see some of my other writing) and held a fancy tasting, slicing it prosciutto-style and serving it with melon.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for the idea that we've got a ham here that can go hock-to-hock with the Italians. But I'm also committed to mastering the local idiom if at all possible, so for my New Year's fete I decided to serve it on biscuits. When in Rome, doncha know. Except it's Memphis.
Um, you're thinking, it's May. Why are you talking about January?
The January ham experiment was a debacle, that's why. My guests were too polite to say anything, but we had too much ham left over at the end of the day to spell success. Here's why: In order for country ham to be palatable, it either needs to be sliced paper-thin, or it requires a couple days of scrubbing, soaking and simmering to remove the mold and salt and render it tender enough to yield to your teeth at roughly the same rate as the bread product into which it is tucked. Otherwise, you get an awful result. You bite into a fluffy, tender biscuit (I did get that part right, thanks to White Lily), only to find yourself in a Brazilian jujitsu match with a slab of salty gristle as crumbs fly all over yourself and the nice new acquaintance you were making till just that moment. It just doesn't make good party food unless you tenderize it.
But I didn't have a dutch oven large enough for my country ham, so I took it back to Schnuck's, where they sliced it on a bandsaw--not an elegant meat slicer that would give me something I could pair with figs--and returned my ham to me in bone-in 1/2"-thick increments. As of now, at least 12 of these slabs remain in my freezer. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I've been experimenting on them ever since.
I had no technique in January, but I can now get one of these hunks to a point of toothsomeness and desalinization that will harmonize with a biscuit. After placing it in a pan of cool water, I bring it to a bare simmer for 20 minutes or so. But once I've done this, I have several other options. My son Gus tests most of them for me, since my husband doesn't eat the furry beasts. So the other night when Josh was out, after rummaging through the fridge for something to eat, I found a bunch of broccoli rabe from Keith and Jill Forrester's stall at the MFM. Grabbing a hunk of ham, I decided to work the Tennessee-Italy connection in reverse.
4 cloves sliced garlic sauteed in olive oil, then chunky matchsticks of ham, probably a few ounces tops. (Country ham is smoky and salty even after soaking, so the best sub if you don't have any will still be prosciutto.) I like to parboil my rabe before chopping it, so I dropped it into boiling salted water for a few minutes and pulled it out with my tongs once the stalks were tender. After plunging it in cool water and chopping it, I added it to the saute and got it good and tasty. Meanwhile, I augmented the cooking water and returned it to a boil, then tossed in a half box of mini penne and a handful more salt. I reserved a little cooking water and used it to bind the sauce to the macaroni, and was all set. This didn't even want cheese.
It appears to have been a success. Note the glazed eyes, the wanton abandon with which he shovels the food into his maw.
And now, behold the noodle fiend, his passion spent. Nothing pleases a mom quite so well as a child with a full stomach and a vacant gaze. The olive-oil slick about the mouth is lagniappe.