As a kid, country ham was one of those things we took for granted. Our modest grocery bill allowed for one ham a year, a carefully selected, suitably moldy specimen from a local grocer who still had a real butcher and meat shop.
The characteristic saltiness, which I loved, was, however, loathed by my grandmother. She would boil the ham for hours to tone down the salt. Still, what was left was texturally and flavor wise far superior to those new-fangled “canned hams” or sweetly smoked Virginia hams.
From birth, country ham has followed me. I had a ah-ha moment when I read about a legendary country ham maker immortalized in Calvin Trillin’s, “Alice, Let’s Eat: The further Adventures of a Happy Eater.” In fact, that Hart County, Kentucky, ham maker was just a handful of miles from my home. This 15-minutes of fame for country ham propelled my career as a food writer. Sadly, it didn’t do much for American country ham. Folks love ‘em or they hate ‘em. Frankly, I think flag-waving and cheering on country ham is the patriotic thing to do.
Salt-cured ham are treasured the world around. Even uptight Americans who turn up their nose at American country ham will gush for hours about the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of Spain’s Jamon Iberico hams or Italian prosciutto. Both styles of hams are indeed very, very good. One of my favorite food experiences is buying two hand-cut transparente slices from a fifth-generation prosciutto maker in Florence’s Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. The hams, buried in ash to age for two years, are deep burgundy in color and melt like butter on your tongue.
And over the years, I have chased local hams – or at least regional hams – where ever I have called home. From the rolling hills of Southern Indiana, through the coal fields of Western Kentucky and to the coast of Georgia, it often takes effort – but I still find hams from small producers, crafted from hogs that grew up in the region. In Kentucky, I even bought a ham once form the once landmark “Country Ham Motel,” on Bowling Green’s bustling U.S. 31-W Bypass.
And here I am in North Carolina. I found a good selection of country ham at the Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market, a sprawling, year-round market just south of Asheville. And then, quite by accident, I found Goodnight Brothers in Boone, N.C. The family has been dry-curing hams since 1948. They package a wide variety of country ham products including the two I tried -- ham hocks and all natural biscuit cut ham.
The all natural packages are sourced solely from the Eastern North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association in Pine Town, N.C. These products are sold under the demanding auspices of grocers Whole Foods Market and Earth Fare.
These products strike a great balance. Old school hams could be very, very salty (leading to my grandmother’s habit of boiling her ham) but modern efficiency and much more stringent food safety guidelines result in country ham products that have much broader appeal to most consumers.
I enjoy country ham all year and especially around holidays when I want a hearty breakfast or New Year’s Day when I preparing a traditional pot of collard greens. Here are recipes and a couple of ways to use Goodnight Brothers Biscuit Cut Ham and Ham Hocks.
Country Ham Biscuits
I searched the archives for my collard greens recipe – only to discover I had never written it down! Lots of folks have a love-hate relationship with collards, a bitter, broad-leafed plant that, uncooked, is tough, leathery and very not tasty. With the right ingredients, a long, slow cook and patience, collards can be delicious, satisfying and, I’ve been told by collards haters, one of the best things they’ve ever eaten.I searched the archives for my collard greens recipe – only to discover I had never written it down! Lots of folks have a love-hate relationship with collards, a bitter, broad-leafed plant that, uncooked, is tough, leathery and very not tasty. With the right ingredients, a long, slow cook and patience, collards can be delicious, satisfying and, I’ve been told by collards haters, one of the best things they’ve ever eaten.I heat the country ham tightly sealed in a foil pack in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. You can also bring it to heat in a medium hot fry pan. One pack is enough to give good portions to four biscuits. I have made hundreds of dozens of biscuits and tampered with a variety of recipes. This one from White Lily flour remains a steadfast, crowd-pleasing recipe.
MAKES ABOUT 20
The recipe for these biscuits is based on one from “Sunday Best Baking: Over a Century of Secrets from the White Lily Kitchen,” by Jeanne Voltz (Longstreet Press, 1998).
6 cups flour, preferably White lily flour 3 tbsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. salt 6 tbsp. cold butter, cut into small pieces
6 tbsp. cold vegetable shortening 2 1⁄2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 500°. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter, 2 table knives, or your fingers, work butter and shortening into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Add 2 1⁄4 cups of buttermilk and gently stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until a stiff, slightly tacky dough forms, adding a little more buttermilk if dough is too dry.
Transfer dough to a floured surface and quickly knead 2-3 times. Roll dough to a 1" thickness. Using a 2 1⁄2" round cookie cutter, cut out biscuits and set aside. Gather dough scraps together and repeat process, making 20 biscuits in all. Put biscuits on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet about 1⁄2" apart as they are formed. Bake biscuits until they have risen and turned golden brown on top, 10-12 minutes.
Serve biscuits hot, slathered with butter and⁄or with thin slices of Goodnight Brothers Country Ham.
First published in Saveur, Issue #80
New Year’s Day Cornbread, Hoppin’ John and Collard Greens
Black-eyed peas and collard greens are traditional Southern dishes served on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity to come in the new year. I like to embellish those plain peas and prepare a big pot of Hoppin’ John – black-eyed peas cooked with rice and ground sausage. The rich bean dish, tangy collard greens and plenty of homemade cornbread to soak up the greens’ “pot likker” is a satisfying and simple meal. Using a Goodnight Brothers Ham Hock to season the greens adds a hint of saltiness and plenty of great pork and smoky flavor.
C’mon, don’t use that junk from a box! It’s too sweet and doesn’t have the same character as this recipe from scratch. This is as close as I get to the recipe that my maternal grandmother made nearly every day of her life.
¾ cup all-purpose flour 1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal
4 tsp baking powder 1 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten 1 ¼ cups milk
¼ cup cooking oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients thoroughly. Add wet ingredients and stir until well blended.
I use a 10-inch cast iron fry pan. I begin by spraying a non-stick cooking spray into the pan, or you may use vegetable oil or shortening. Pour in the batter, place in 400 degree oven and bake for about 30 minutes.
Collard Greens with Goodnight Brothers Ham Hock
I searched the archives for my collard greens recipe – only to discover I had never written it down! Lots of folks have a love-hate relationship with collards, a bitter, broad-leafed plant that, uncooked, is tough, leathery and very not tasty. With the right ingredients, a long, slow cook and patience, collards can be delicious, satisfying and, I’ve been told by collards haters, one of the best things they’ve ever eaten.
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 27 oz. or 2 16 oz. precut collard greens (I like the mixed style – collards, turnip and mustard greens)
1 small yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
48 oz. chicken broth
2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 Goodnight Brothers Ham Hock
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
½ tsp ground black pepper
Heat pot over medium high heat until hot, then add olive oil. When oil is hot, add onion and sweat until tender. Add garlic and collards. Occasionally stir the collards – the object here is to wilt the greens until the volume is reduced. Then add all remaining ingredients. If necessary, top off the pot with water to just cover the greens. Bring to a boil, reduce to low, cover pot and simmer for two hours. I don’t salt collards until cooking is complete. Some saltiness will be extracted from the hock.
This staple has as many interpretations as there are awesome Southern cooks. I make mine with ground sausage, but am partial to this version by my friend Chef John Witherington of Statesboro, Georgia. In this version, Goodnight Brothers Ham Hock come into play again, creating the third player of the traditional New Year’s Day triumvirate: Collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Makes 10 bowls
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 2 ham hocks or 1 lb. smoked bacon, diced
1 cup green bell pepper, diced 1 cup celery, diced
1 cup yellow onion, diced 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
3 bay leaves 2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes
4 cups stock (pork or chicken) 1 pound dried black eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons dried thyme 1 cup long grain white rice
Salt and pepper to taste
In large pot or cast iron Dutch oven, heat oil and add ham hocks, bell pepper, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaves, and pepper flakes. Cook until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. (Add teaspoon of salt to mixture to release liquid. You want to sweat the vegetables, not caramelize them)
Add stock and bring to a boil. Add peas and bring back to boil for one minute. Reduce heat and simmer peas for one hour.
Remove bay leaves, add rice and thyme and cook with the lid on for about 20–25 minutes or until rice is tender and most of the liquid is cooked out. (This is a point of debate. Some recipes call for more of a stew–like dish, while others call for the dish to be drier like a pilaf or perleau. Personal preference should prevail.)
Add salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
Thanks to Goodnight Brothers for providing samples from which to produce this story.