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It’s me, Suzie, and Jay. We sit in a cozy farm house living room with wood burning stove a-blazing sipping homemade kombucha with notepads, diagrams, and computers all around discussing our upcoming harvest dinner. The farm mascot, Bear, an insanely huge white fluff ball (a Great Pyrenees) oogles me for snuggles, and head scratchies, and completely covers my black pants with a layer of snowy soft fur. He is distracting but irresistable.
Really Bear? Can’t you see we’re talking bout ham here? Jeesh!
We have scheduled a date for our harvest dinner. We have spread the word via Good Eggs. We have sold tickets (all of them!) which has got our adrenaline going. What if it rains? What if we don’t have enough beer? What if we don’t have enough food? What if people decide they don’t want to trek all the way out here?
We tackle the “what ifs” and now we must solidify a menu that pairs with Cypress Beer but also represents seasonal produce available on the farm. Suzie and Jay Trexler, co-farm managers of Potrero Nuevo Farm and leading force behind Tunitas Creek Kitchen, want to showcase Berkshire Tamsworth ham from pigs raised on site. I would like this too, but I just don’t know if there will be enough meat for 50 people.
They are sure it will be enough. I remind the farmers that people really eat at events like this and if people are drinking and the weather is cold they will pig out! And we want them to – it’s a harvest celebration!
30 pounds of ham for 50 people just doesn’t sound like enough. Of course the menu does start with delicata squash flammekueche, cauliflower du Barry truffle soup shots, and a colorful array of homemade pickles. The sit down part of the evening commences with a napa cabbage and honey crisp apple slaw and warm pretzel sticks. The side dishes range from cippolinis in caraway cream sauce, to roasted kuri squash with pancetta & sage, to braised cattle beans with kale & thyme. It’s doubtful anyone will starve.
But, I know from experience that people (myself) really like to eat pork. With beef I ration 1/4 – 1/2 pound per person depending on the cut. But with pork, especially the juicier tastier butcher cuts, I normally figure on around 3/4 – to 1 pound per person.
Suzie and Jay want to use their own meat – this is a farm to table dinner afterall – so we pull the hams out of the deep freezer and take a closer look. I can’t tell if they’ve been cured and smoked because the fat and skin layer is still in tact and I’ve never seen this on a ham. It’s not like we cook ham everyday in the restaurant world. I mean when was the last time you saw ham as an entrée on a menu?
This causes me to panic. As much as I would love the opportunity to do this part of the process myself there just isn’t time before the event and I don’t want to experiment on 50 people or waste the only hams Suzie and Jay have left. Curing ham can take up to a whole week depending on size. And then they should be smoked and our smoker is super small and wood burning (not electric) which imparts great flavor but requires lots of attention.
It’s not that fresh ham is bad. But, it won’t be pink (yes, the nitrates keep the color – and the nitrates also stop any chance of botulism which when curing a large pieces of meat can be useful. but to get the curing process right and do it safe is tricky) and it will be a little rubbery and chewy in texture. Who wants to naw on a rubber band during a nice dinner?
Jay finds the form from the Meat Locker where the pigs have been processed. We run down the list of cuts. It clearly says that the hams have been cured and smoked. Well all-righty then! Let’s ham it up!
I rip open the vacuum seal on the smallest of the three hams and sure enough a heavenly smokey aroma comes through. Bear, who is sure there must be something for him in this clandestine meeting over the deep freezer, attempts to push his way through our barricade but no such luck.
We sample frozen slices and it is ridiculously delicious – like no ham I have ever tasted before. It is nicely salty and smokey but the nutty flavor of the meat is still full front. We are all nodding our heads and smiling at each other while savoring our samples because we know this is going to be even better cooked and people are going to go crazy over it.
A deep sense of relief washes over me. I cook on 4 different farms, and each one is fabulous and each one presents its own logistical hurdles to jump over in terms of cooking space and distance between kitchen and table. A ham can be pre-cooked, carried over to the table and presented, then sliced and served warm. It’s not like a piece of fish which goes from perfect to overcooked and freezing cold in seconds. This makes my job of serving 50 people a little easier.
Two days before the event I thaw out the hams in the refrigerator. I make a an easy ham glaze by combining fresh pressed apple cider (from the farm) with three bottles of Cypress brew ale, brown sugar, molasses, apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, star anise, dried whole chile peppers, coriander seed, cardamon pods, black peppercorns, cloves, and orange peel. I reduce this to a light syrup that has the consistency of olive oil. Yum.
Heck, if no one shows up to this party I’m going to sit down and drink the ham glaze all by myself.
The day of the event I set the oven to 250˚F and place the three 10-pound hams on large onions cut around-the-world. The onions will serve as my roasting rack.
To prepare the ham I cut through the skin and fat layer down to the flesh in a 1/4-inch graph design. This is important. It is virtually impossible to cut through the skin once it is cooked. You will need one of those gawd awful electric knives if you want to go that route. The ham must be cooked low and slow to render all the fat layer under the skin. And once this is achieved (crispy crackle and ooey gooey rendered fat) then you have reached ham heaven.
Because our dinner is centered around beer, I choose to make a poultice of mustard and rosemary which I think will go nicely as it drips down the roast and melds with the vinegar-y apple cider & ale spiced glaze. I smear it in between all the fat crevices.
The ham cooks for two and half hours and I generously baste every ten to fifteen minutes with glaze and pan juices. The smell of the farm kitchen is like something out of an old cartoon – the animated wafting scent of the delicious roast tickles under the nose, hypnotizes, and beckons us to follow completely mesmerized. Bear, who has been given a “time out” in the farm office for being totally annoying is howling for a taste – and he’s not the only one!
When ready to serve dinner to our lively guests, I remove the ham from the onion rack which has imparted savory flavor and pour off the all the pan juices and glaze. I separate the fat from the jus and reserve. Suzie and I present the ham to the guests who surprisingly keep us posing as they snap photos (Wow! So this is what it feels like to be limelight?)
We rush it back to the kitchen and slice it up. Slicing ham off the bone is not so easy and I suggest (unless you just happen to have a spiral slicer) to carve through the outer pieces until you hit the bone. With a sharp boning knife carve around the bone and remove it, then continue to slice to the thickness desired. I think 1/4 to 1/2–inch is just about right.
The plates come back clean. It turns out there is enough ham to offer seconds but guests are rubbing their bellies truly fed up.
“That was the best ham I have ever had in my life” one guest tells me. And as much as I’d like to take the credit, all the applause really goes to Suzie and Jay. With meat – it is, what it is. Ham glaze is just lipstick on a pig. The farmers have done a superb job raising their heritage pigs.
Our Guests finish dessert in the barn kicking up their heels on hay bails and watching movies we project, kegs are tapped, and people are happy and socializing. My cooking team is exhausted and we ditch the last of our energy in a final clean-up attempt. It has been a gorgeous farm to table evening under a beautiful starry sky, on a stunning farm, with impeccable produce, and delicious locally brewed fresh cold beer.
Bear is finally allowed to join the crowd and I sneak him a few tastes of the ham that he’s been crying for all afternoon. He rewards me with a deep “woof!” and a few kisses..