SMOKE and cured meats made an indelible impact on my childhood. I often ventured onto Gram’s enclosed back porch to escape the cigarette smoke from the elders. There, I reveled in the enticing wood aromas coming from the brick smokehouse at the bottom of the stairs. My grandfather cured and smoked his own bacon, sausage and hams in his Chicago bungalow. Tidbits of each were carved for the well-behaved grandchild. I earned my share.
Little wonder, then, to this day, a thin slice of smoked ham brings reward. I choose the style of ham to suit my audience and the occasion. For appetizers and charcuterie plates, I seek out see-through slices of imported Schwarzwalder Schinken from the Black Forest in Germany, Italian prosciutto, Spanish serrano and French Bayonne hams.
For Easter dinner, I’m partial to ham carved off the bone. The mushy canned version, often served covered in tinny-tasting sliced pineapple, never appeals. Dry-cured and aged country hams require soaking to remove excess salt before a long cook, which requires planning. Instead, I often opt for the ease of spiral-sliced ham, or other fully cooked and cured hams that simply need warming before serving. Be suspect of dirt-cheap hams—they’ll likely be filled with artificial ingredients or been forced-brined to speed up curing. I go to my local meat market and ask questions and read labels.
For holiday meals, our family also enjoys fresh, uncured hams (a.ka. a leg of pork) for the rich roast pork flavor. I factor in plenty of time and refrigerator space to brine the leg so it stays moist during cooking. Truth be told, we usually cook two hams when the whole clan gathers—a small cured ham for the smoke aficionados and a fresh leg of pork for the smoke averse.
When ordering either a whole, fully cooked cured or fresh uncooked ham, ask the butcher to remove the H-shaped rump bone, known as the aitch bone, for easier carving later. Then tie the ham in several places into a compact shape that will roast evenly. I usually request a small, fresh ham, weighing about 14 pounds, to serve a large party with substantial leftovers. Remove the skin before cooking for easier carving; leave it for flavor and presentation points.
Most hams—smoked or fresh—taste even better when exposed to a wood-fired grill. Setting up the grill for low and slow cooking is the only tricky part. Simply arrange the hot coals on the sides of a charcoal grill or turn off the gas burners located directly under the meat. Ideally, this careful positioning of the heat keeps the internal grill temperature in the low 300-degree range. No charring, no dry meat.
A smoky brown sugar rub adds just the right touch of sweetness to ham or fresh pork leg. So does a simple rhubarb-ginger sauce. Offer it slightly warm to dollop on thin slices of your just reward.
FULLY COOKED, CURED HAM ON THE GRILL
The butt portion of the ham is more flavorful but not as easy to carve as the shank portion. Prep time is 15 minutes, while cooking time is 2 hours. The recipe makes for 12 servings.
2 cups apple wood or hickory wood chips
1 fully cooked smoked half ham, about 10 pounds
Brown sugar rub
About 2 cups unfiltered apple cider or fresh orange juice
Soak wood chips in water to cover, at least 30 minutes. Pat ham dry. Rub it on the top with a generous coating of the brown sugar rub. Set ham in a baking pan or foil roasting pan. Add apple cider, juice or water to come up about 1 inch in the pan. Completely cover the ham and the pan in heavy-duty foil.
Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. Turn off the heat in the center of the gas grill or set up the charcoal grill for indirect cooking by banking all the coals to the sides, leaving the center empty.
Put the foil-wrapped ham in the center of the grill (not directly over the heat source).
Add a small handful of soaked chips to the coals. (If using a gas grill, wrap the drained soaked chips in foil and pierce the foil in several places; position the packet directly over the heat source.) Cover the grill to maintain a steady 325 degrees. (Use an oven thermometer as a guide.)
Cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 130 degrees when inserted in the thickest part of the leg and the juices run clear, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
If using charcoal, check the grill every 30 minutes to see if the coals need replenishing and to add a handful of the wood chips to the coals.
Let ham rest on cutting board, at least 20 minutes. The temperature will rise about 10 degrees. Serve the ham very thinly sliced with the rhubarb-ginger sauce.
Baking instructions: To bake either ham, instead of grilling, follow preparation instructions then bake at 325 degrees.
Baking will take nearly the same amount of time as grilling, but you should begin checking the ham’s internal temperature with a thermometer about 30 minutes earlier than on the grill. (The oven temperature remains much steadier than a grill when the lid is opened, etc.)
BROWN SUGAR RUB
Mix 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar, 2 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp each salt and sweet paprika; and 2 tsp dry mustard in a bowl.
RHUBARB-GINGER SAUCE WITH RED WINE
Trim and dice 2 pounds fresh rhubarb. You should have about 8 cups. (Or use 8 cups diced frozen rhubarb.) In a large saucepan, heat the rhubarb, 1/2 cup dry red wine, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger and 1/2 tsp salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer, stirring often, until rhubarb is fall-apart tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Serve warm. Makes: 4 cups
• Nutrition information per serving: 295 calories, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 44 g protein, 2,599 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
JeanMarie Brownson / Chicago Tribune