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Grand Ham

Updating a Traditional Regional Recipe For Making Holiday Pig in The City

Henry Hong
JUST COOKING: Making Easter dinner from the stuffing (top) to the plate.

By Henry Hong | Posted 3/19/2008

Quick, think of a traditional Maryland dish. Now eliminate anything crab-related--now what, Einstein? Why, stuffed ham of course. If you've never heard of it, don't feel too bad--it's an exceedingly localized dish served mainly in St. Mary's County, in Southern Maryland, where English settlers first landed in 1634. And what better way to celebrate the vernal equinox--aka Easter--than to get down with some truly local flavor.

Theories about stuffed ham's origin vary, but it's probably a variation of the English dish stuffed chine, in which pork is deeply scored and stuffed with parsley. It's then wrapped in cloth and boiled. Stuffed ham is the only other dish I could find produced using this cut/stuff/wrap method: The cuts are made lengthwise, then stuffed with chopped greens and aromatics such as onion and often celery (but never garlic). Kale and cabbage are pretty standard, though watercress is used occasionally, too (all are members of the cabbage family). A recipe in the indispensable Eat Drink and Be Merry in Maryland calls for spinach, chive, and parsley, perhaps a more direct analogue to the original.

The vegetable mixture is aggressively seasoned with salt, black pepper, and red pepper, both crushed and ground. Some recipes include mustard seed and celery seed as well. The stuffing is almost always spicy, but I've been told that within the county, the degree differs in the north (spicy) and south (real spicy). Being Korean, I tend to prefer the real spicy, and if 17th-century Marylanders were eating ham half as spicy as modern versions, they were surely the most hard-core eaters in Colonial America.

Properly stuffing a ham isn't clearly prescribed. Most often, the ham is deboned, leaving a central cavity. This is stuffed, as are the surface incisions, which are made in a radial pattern, producing a striking pink on green star design when sliced. Some prefer to leave the bone in, but this makes slicing more difficult, and fewer still stuff only the central bone cavity. This last method is derided as lazy and unattractive but to me sounds most sensible. But in a stuffed ham, you manually create orifices to fill, which you then must wrap before cooking. This kind of extra effort is usually reserved for some greater practical purpose, but in this case it is simply to make an extra interesting ham. One very old recipe offers that the greens serve to offset eating "too greatly of fat meats" on Easter. A whole ham is about 20 pounds, plus around 10 pounds of stuffing, and is boiled for 15-20 minutes per pound. Needless to say, this is a serious time investment and is usually reserved for holidays and other special occasions.

Recipes are fairly easy to find online, but before making my own, I figured I should actually taste one. Heading south on Route 4 on a balmy day in early March, I passed field after breathtakingly spring-green field. It occurred to me how random it is that Easter dinners feature ham. Turns out pigs were a symbol of prosperity and luck, a tradition that pre-dates the fairly modern Christian holiday, which is itself based on a pagan celebration. Stuffed hams, meanwhile, are mostly made in autumn, when kale and cabbage are harvested. Ham stuffing activity peaks in October, timed to coincide with the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival. Hams are stuffed for Easter as well, but I could only find two places that were serving it the day I made the trip. Luckily both W.J. Dent and Sons and Chaptico Market were pretty highly recommended. Nick's Market, a local supermarket chain, stocked frozen stuffed hams for $3.99/pound.

The two versions were fairly similar (both priced around $10/pound) except Chaptico Market's stuffing was significantly spicier and was greener, indicating more kale than cabbage. Both hams were sliced very thin, and the slices were not intact--the serving was basically a pile of greens and meat. The greens were tender, arrestingly spicy, and quite complex in both aroma and flavor. Most importantly, they had excellent porkiness, but the absence of smoke flavor was unusual.

The ham in both cases was moist, tender, and had that salty-sweet "hammy" flavor, and again had no smokiness. This is because nearly all recipes require something called corned ham, which is cured in a liquid brine. The taste and texture is somewhere between fresh and deli ham. Unfortunately, hams processed this way can only be found in St. Mary's County, it appears. You can special order one from an accommodating butcher, but it isn't cheap--I was quoted a price of $60 for one.

In the interest of pragmatism, I temporarily decided to suppress my proclivity for doing things the hard--i.e., "right"--way and came up with what is essentially a stuffed ham-like pork roast that's more manageable for city dwellers. I should mention that W.J. Dent and a few other retailers will ship stuffed ham, but, again, it'll cost you. My recipe makes about six servings and will set you back around $10.

Fake-Ass Stuffed Ham (FASH)

1 Boston Butt pork roast (usually 3-4 pounds)

1 lb. kale, washed,thick stalks removed

1/2 lb. cabbage

1/2 medium onion

2 celery stalks

Brine: Two quarts cool water into which half a cup each of salt and sugar have been dissolved. Seasoning: one tablespoon each salt and crushed red pepper, two tablespoons each black and cayenne pepper. Butterfly the roast in thirds, removing the small center bone. Brine overnight and drain. Chop all vegetables finely. If using a food processor, work in batches. Season and let stand for 20 minutes (this will soften the vegetables).

Pack a layer of the stuffing on top of the roast, then roll up as in a roulade (or a Ho Ho). Secure with twine. Transfer to cloth (I used a T-shirt), pack any remaining stuffing around roast, wrap tightly, and secure with twine. Simmer gently covered, in enough water to cover, for three and a half hours. Cool to room temperature in the pot, then drain and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving sliced.

Note: The roast won't be pink unless you add certain hard to find chemicals. I experimented by adding two slices of unsmoked cured bacon to the brine, and it did seem to affect the color slightly (the pork remained a pale flesh hue).

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