A friend of mine once predicted that I would decorate for Christmas once I had kids. She said you can’t help it, you just feel more inclined to honor traditions when you have kids. Now that I have a four-month-old daughter, I feared that glowing nativity scenes were in our future.
I’m pleased to say that I still didn’t decorate for Christmas, unless you count the plastic LED Christmas tree that my husband received from a coworker. It changed colors. It was pretty. I think our daughter appreciated it, although I did tell her that it was a commercial piece of crap that would someday make a sad addition to the local landfill. That’s what I hate about the holidays.
But the holidays are also a great excuse to cook traditional foods, and that is a tradition I don’t mind honoring. Many of the traditions are based on what is available seasonally. Take, for instance, New Year’s in the South.
You’re supposed to have ham, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread on New Year’s Day. The black-eyed peas are supposed to represent coins, and each one you eat will yield one lucky day for the year. Collard greens represent cash, and the cornbread represents gold. I guess it’s all about the money. Except for the ham, which merely represents…yumminess.
But first I needed to figure out how to cook the fresh ham I accidentally bought from Full Quiver Farms at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market. I meant to get a pork butt, but he said he only had a leg. Then he gave me the ham and I brought it home, threw it in the freezer, and forgot about it. I meant to make pulled pork in the crockpot, but the fact that it said "fresh ham" on the package made me think I should save it for something fancier. Because isn’t ham kind of fancy?
So how do I cook the damn thing? And should I invite guests? Usually I don’t invite people over for meals I’m not sure about. Which, it occurred to me, is kind of dishonest. If everyone thinks I’m a fabulous cook who never makes mistakes, then I lose on a number of levels. First of all, they’ll think they can’t simply go to the farmer’s market every week and buy food they aren’t sure about. They’ll think they have to be experts or something. Which, I can assure everyone, is most certainly not true. Secondly, they probably won’t invite me to dinner ever because they’ll think I’m a snob and that they need to lure me with pastured meat and organic veggies.
Actually, that part is true. I can be had for a basket of local okra, a cheese ball, and a fresh tomato. What can I say, I’m a cheap date.
But back to the ham. I googled around for a little while before I realized that few people know more about pork than my cousin-in-law, Bonnie P. So I called her and asked her what to do. "Fresh ham is actually a pork leg, and it’s great because you can do practically nothing to it and it will be juicy and yummy." She told me to sear it in a pan, then roast it at about 350 in the oven. She told me some other things, too, but I stupidly called her when I was driving to Central Market, and I didn’t write anything down.
You just don’t have any time anymore once you have a kid. Especially when you’ve only left your husband with 2 ounces of breast milk. Yes, she eats local, babies.
We bought the collard greens at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, from Gundermann Farms. They were freakin’ huge! I prepared them when Bebe was down for her nap. I’ve learned to prepare food from the farmers market right when I get them. I de-stem, chop, and prep whatever we get, in order to make it super easy when we cook it. I also wash EVERYTHING — seriously, just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s clean. There’s dirt, bacteria, and any number of other cooties that could be on your produce. I use a veggie wash, such as FIT or um, Veggie Wash. I just found this site that tells you how to make your own, which I’m totally gonna do.
The black-eyed peas were a last-minute Central Market buy. For the last month or so there have been fresh black-eyed peas from the local farm P/2 Organics, but I was unable to find any, and had to settle for some decidedly non-organic fresh black-eyed peas from Melissa’s, which I’ve never heard of before. The cornmeal was from Bob’s Red Mill. Not organic (or local for that matter), but I liked that the cornmeal was coarsely ground, so it still contained the germ and the bran from the corn.
How to cook the rest of this stuff? That required, again, much googling. I was in a tremendous hurry, also, because Bebe was exceedingly high maintenance that day, and I barely had 15 minutes to myself. All I knew is that I wanted everything to be simple and to involve ingredients that I already had on hand. Most of the black-eyed peas recipes I found said to use ham hocks, but I threw in a couple of slices of Pedersen’s uncured pepper bacon instead, and a red jalapeno pepper I had in the freezer. I let them cook for an hour. For the collard greens, I de-stemmed and cut them up in strips, sauteed about half an onion, then threw the greens in. I poured in two cups of homemade chicken stock (which is so easy to make and store) and let those cook for an hour as well.
Meanwhile, I left the uncooked ham sitting in a bowl on the counter. Bonnie said that it’s better to get it to room temperature before you cook it. I couldn’t remember why, and I’d already called her three times today to ask ham-related questions, and I figured this one could wait. She told me I needed to tie it up, because it was wedge-shaped and would not cook evenly otherwise. I’ve always wondered why people tied up their meat. Wait, what should I tie it up with? I realized I had to call again.
"Pastured pork hotline, this is Bonnie, how can I help you?"
"Ha ha. What do I tie it up with?" I was picturing something like that elastic string that they make candy necklaces with.
"Kitchen twine." I had some twine, but I wasn’t sure if it was "kitchen twine" or not.
"Okay, do I tie it up and then sear it, or sear it and then tie it?"
"Go ahead and tie it up first," she said kindly, although I guess it was kind of obvious, after I thought about it.
"Okay, thanks, I’ll call you in five minutes." How am I supposed to tie it up? I haphazardly tied pieces of twine on the thing, so that it resembled a log. The expression, "Well I’ll be hog-tied!" kept running through my head. I stuffed some garlic inside of it, and seared away.
Something about searing is strangely satisfying. I’m not sure if it’s the browning or the smell, but I do like it. Bonnie said the fat strip on the ham would render a little and make oil unnecessary. How right she was. It was already crispy and delectable-looking.
I put it in the oven and cooked it at about 325, because our guests would be arriving in about an hour and a half and I didn’t want it to be sitting around too long. I also hate to serve dinner immediately upon my guests’ arrival; I think it’s better to wait a bit, chit-chat, drink, etc. The leg was only 3.7 lbs, and it’s about 20 minutes or so per pound at 350, so I figured it would take about an hour and a half or so. When I pulled it out after an hour, it had an internal temperature of 140, which Bonnie said would climb to 150 after a half hour.
The dinner was a smash hit. My husband, a Texan, was very happy. I invited our friends Kelly and Audrey. It was a risk to invite Audrey, because she is from Louisiana, but she said it tasted great. Although she did admit to eating cereal for dinner sometimes, so maybe she was just grateful. Best to go by my own take on the meal which, if I do say so myself, was pretty goddamn fantastic. The ham was moist and resembled pork tenderloin in taste and texture, and the garlic flavored it quite nicely. The collard greens were also excellent — I had expected not to like them, but they were very good. The black-eyed peas were especially good, with a nice peppery flavor and a yummy broth.
So here’s to the New Year, and to the 152 lucky days I’m supposed to have. Unless leftovers count.