Fresh Ham, Hold the 7-Up

"I don't like those baked hams," barked a colleague, who's known for his rambling, unsolicited opinions about everything. "They taste too much like flesh."

I don't know if I'd go that far, but my favorite curmudgeon's argument is well taken: the texture and mouthfeel of cured, cooked hams is less a sure thing and more a crapshoot. There are lots of variables at play -- processing, how the pig was raised, the at-home glaze and extra flavor add-ons and the way it's sliced. Too thick, ham slabs do have a science fiction quality to them, no matter how good that glaze tastes.

My brothers John (left) and Tim (right) bookending me for our annual Easter outfit pose-a-rama. (Family photo)

(Speaking of intriguing ham glazes, check out the goodie in this week's Food section, zipped up with ginger, mango and chiles.)

When I get in the mood to do a ham, I like mine uncured, which means "fresh." By the way, the word ham refers to the hip, hind leg and shank of the pig, not the packaging or cured-uncured question.

After many years of eating prepared ham (I recall studded cloves, brown sugar and 7-UP being applied by my grandmother or my Aunt Ginny) at Easter dinner, I decided, as a budding cook in my twenties, to follow the advice of food writer Molly O'Neill, whose column in the New York Times Magazine I would read religiously.

The recipe called for a fresh ham, a concept new to this glazed ham veteran, and I remember going to the neighborhood Acme placing a special order with the guy at the meat counter, could I have me a butterflied fresh ham, please?

I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but yes dear, we can special order that for you, come back in three days. My package was huge -- about 15 pounds -- and instead of the rosy pink of those 7-Up hams I had become accustomed to, the fresh flesh was pale, like a big ole pork chop.

It was a great adventure, making a rye bread/dried fruit stuffing and tying up the enormous hind leg with twine for my very first time. Note: Enlist the help of a partner -- one person to hold the ham, the other to wrap and tie. Also, if you don't like caraway, I think fennel would be fun here as well, or a combination of seeds of your choosing. The same goes for the rye bread -- use what you like and don't worry about the recipe.

Thirteen years since my maiden fresh ham adventure, I've made this recipe on a handful of Easter-related occasions, but it's been a while. I'm thinking I need to hightail it to the nearest meat counter and make some hammy inquiries. And no, you needn't worry about the mouthfeel here; if you like roasted pork, you'll love this.

One last note: In addition to the 7-Up ham, Easter also meant Easter outfits in my family. Every spring, there would be a shopping expedition, one for the boys, and one for yours truly. Our great aunt and uncle would dutifully outfit we three O'Donnel kids from head to toe, and for me, that meant accessories such as a bonnet, purse and often a jacket to go over my frock. (See the above pic for a classic combo from about 1973.) Usually pics were taken before we sullied our outfits at the dinner table.

Fresh Ham Roasted With Rye Bread and Dried Fruit Stuffing
Adapted from "This Little Piggy Ate Roast Beef," by Molly O'Neill, in the March 27, 1994 issue of New York Times Magazine

1 fresh ham, boned and butterflied, about 18 pounds (if you buy a smaller ham, adjust spice rub and stuffing amounts accordingly)
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, crushed
4 teaspoons salt
black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups rye bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/4 cups pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 tart apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup chicken broth

Have your butcher bone and butterfly the ham and score the fat in a diamond pattern.

Combine 5 cloves of the garlic, 2 1/2 teaspoons of the caraway seeds, 3 teaspoons of the salt and pepper to taste and rub the mixture over the inside and outside of the pork. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a skillet, add the remaining 2 cloves garlic and the onion, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Let cool. Placed cooled onion-garlic mixture in a bowl with bread cubes, dried fruit, apple, rosemary, egg, remaining 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, remaining teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste. Mix until well combined

Chill if necessary. You don't want to put hot stuffing into cold meat.

Open out the pork, spread the stuffing, fold the pork around it and tie securely with twine. Place in a large, deep roasting pan and pour in the chicken broth. Bake, basting from time to time, until the roast reaches 160 degrees, when a thermometer is inserted in the meat, about 3 1/2 hours. (Alternatively about 15 minutes per pound, depending on speed of your oven.)

Let stand for 15 minutes.

Degrease pan juice, serve separately. Slice meat.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 6, 2007; 12:08 PM ET Entertaining
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

A fresh ham? It's just a pork roast.

I agree that fresh pork tastes better than cured pork.

Posted by: candide | April 7, 2007 10:54 AM

I did this once. I was just learning to cook and it wasn't covered in my only cookbook so I didn't know about tying it up and the thing completely fill my oven--there was grease everywhere and we ate it forever. I was sort of disappointed. As you say it was a huge, fatty roast pork.

Now, 40 years later, I know how to cook both the pork and all kinds of wonderful dishes from the left overs, chili verde, tamales, pasties. I only fix one now when there are a lot of people.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | April 7, 2007 1:40 PM

I'm glad I'm not the only one with embarrassing pictures from my 1970's youth. My kids are now enjoying them anew.

Posted by: Sue | April 7, 2007 5:49 PM

"Our great aunt and uncle would dutifully outfit we three O'Donnel kids from head to toe, and for me, that meant accessories such as a bonnet, purse and often a jacket to go over my frock."

Cute photo and nice story.

Now, just a quick comment: your great aunt and uncle would dutifully outfit "us three O'Donnel kids" NOT "we three..."

(You were the object of the action).

Happy Easter!

Posted by: Kate | April 7, 2007 9:05 PM

Oh, the grammar police is everywhere! Kim, my family still enjoys ham covered with pineapple slices. We will not break tradition!

Posted by: Fred | April 8, 2007 3:18 PM

I would love it if someone could tell me how to get the ham and lamb receipes from the Food Section the Wednesday before Easter. I believe it was April 4th? I was particularly intrigued by the butterflied lamb receipe and the shrimp/andouille with peas paella receipe. I'd appreciate your help.

Posted by: Giuli | April 16, 2007 10:12 AM

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