As Easter is less than a week away, Squid Ink feels compelled to forewarn you: Embark on ham-speak with Jean Francois Meteigner, executive chef-owner of La Cachette Bistro in Santa Monica, with caution. The French chef will tell you what a good ham is, and what it is not. And don't even think about buying one from a certain commercial producer. You. Must. Make. Your. Own.
Not to worry. While you're discussing the finer points of the hind quarter, Meteigner will likely enthusiastically offer you tips (non-negotiable instructions, really) on how to cure your own. It all sounds so easy, in fact, that Squid Ink wonders why we haven't tried this before. A homemade ham takes very little time to make (about four days, start to finish, including brining time) and is relatively inexpensive, as little more than a fresh pork hind leg and kosher salt is required. And then there's the taste. Without all those off-putting preservatives, a fresh cured ham retains a fantastically fresh pork flavor. Plus, all during Easter brunch you get to gloat that you made it.
Meteigner grew up in France, where his Northern Italian great grandmother made homemade pastas in the kitchen, grandpa cured prosciutto and pancetta in the barn, mom raised rabbits, chickens and lamb in the backyard, and his uncle often took the young chef to the butcher to make blood sausages from scratch (ya, we're jealous, too).
One dish Meteigner recalls enjoying around the table with his half French, half Italian relatives was the pâté. The "head pâté was an incredible experience as a kid... [although] a tough way to put food on the table," he says of participating in the oink to the eat process. The chef still makes his own pâtés, cured meats and sausages for the restaurant.
This week at La Cachette, Meteigner has made several family dishes, including a batch of his great grandmother's handmade veal Parmesan-stuffed tortellini in chicken broth ("Only a poule (hen), no cocks!," Meteigner recalls her insisting when he'd go to the market to buy chicken for the broth.). And grandpa surely would have been pleased to see the house-made hams hanging in the walk-in fridge for Sunday's Easter brunch.
But should you prefer to try your hand at curing, the chef has kindly shared his ham recipe with one request: Don't be tempted to lower salt content in the brine, or your ham might very well turn gray. Easter, after all, is a pastel holiday.
La Cachette's Cured Ham
From: Jean Francois Meteigner, La Cachette Bistro, Santa Monica
Note: If your local butcher balks at the idea of ordering a whole ham by, say, tomorrow, point them to Premier Meats, (323) 277-5888, the local wholesaler that Meteigner says keeps fresh hams in stock. Meteigner uses this jumbo commercial grade injector from Culinary District (formerly Surfas) for those generous salt brine injections.
1 whole fresh pork leg, skin on, about 12 to 15 pounds
5 pounds kosher salt
Fresh rosemary, thyme, juniper berries, fennel seed
½ cup honey
1. In a large stock pot, combine 12 liters (about 405 ounces, or 3 1/4 gallons) of water with the salt. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and allow to cool completely.
2. When the mixture is cool, inject 1 liter (about 34 ounces, or 4 1/4 cups) of brine evenly all throughout the pork leg as close to the bone as possible.
3. Place the pork in a large stock pot, weigh it down with a very heavy iron skillet or other weights, and refrigerate for 24 hours. It will gradually exude the brine.
4. Submerge the pork in the brine for another 24 hours, re-injecting the ham with the brine twice daily.
5. Remove the ham from the brine and allow to drain for 24 hours.
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6. In a large stockpot, combine 2 cups of white wine with a small bunch of thyme, a large sprig of rosemary, 5 to 6 juniper berries, and ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds. (Meteigner notes to "go wild" here, using whatever herbs and quantities you have on hand).
7. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Sprinkle the outside of the ham with 4 tablespoons of salt, 1 tablespoon of pepper and 2 tablespoons of chopped rosemary. Roast for 8 hours, or until golden and cooked through. Chill ham in the cooking broth for 12 hours.
8. Prepare a glaze by mixing ½ cup of honey with 2 cups of warm cooking broth (microwave or place in a saucepan over medium heat to melt the honey and broth).
9. Before serving, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Brush ham with the ½ cup of melted honey mixed with 2 cups of cooking broth from the ham. Brush the ham all over with the glaze and bake for 1 ½ hours, until golden brown all over. Slice and serve, or cool and serve cold with pickles and mustard.