Monday, November 17, 2014

Virginia Country Ham & Biscuits

The Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance
Whenever my job took me east to Virginia, I was amazed by two things—one was the number of people I met who worked for the government and the other was the Mason Dixon line. The government jobs are easier to understand for me than the fact that Virginia is located on the Atlantic coast along the line that divides the northern and southern halves of the United States. When I think of Virginia, I never consider it to be in the South, since it really is the middle of the eastern United States. The fact that many Virginians speak with a Southern accent just blows me away. I could go on forever, but this story is about food.
Cracker Barrel Country Ham, Grands Biscuits, sweet pickles
Recently I met a woman who grew up in Virginia. I was talking to her about sausage gravy and biscuits one day and asked if that was a common food for her, being that she was from the “South?” She said that sausage gravy and biscuits were not a part of her family’s history, but biscuits and ham, on the other hand, was. “Do you mean with red-eye gravy,” I asked? “No, just biscuits and ham,” she replied. It didn’t take long for her to tell me that it was made with a salty Virginia ham.
So what is it and why would I want to eat it? According to Wikipedia, "Country ham is a variety of cured ham, typically very salty. Country ham is first mentioned in print in 1944, referring to a method of curing and smoking done in the rural parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky and other nearby Southern states."

Make some biscuits first
She told me that whenever her father made a Virginia ham, he would save the fat to use when cooking other things. I asked her to explain about the biscuits and ham. She said that Country Ham was less salty than the Virginia ham and had to be sliced extremely thin, since it was so salty. The ham is piled on the biscuits and then topped off with sweet pickle slices. The sweet pickles add another layer of flavor and balance the saltiness of the ham. Then I saw it! The fact that we were talking about food that she grew up with in her family, triggered, as it often does, a nostalgic memory, or as I like to call it that warm and fuzzy feeling. It almost never fails.
Country ham, sweet pickles, parsley butter
So I immediately went to work doing a little research on "biscuits and ham." The first thing that I had to do was find a "Country Ham." Undoubtedly, the Smithfield Ham is the most popular brand out there and is available online, as our many other brands, but generally you have to buy multiple 8 ounce packages, or a half or whole ham. Next I began a search for Country Ham in local and national grocery stores. I was unable to find it at local stores. Then my search brought up Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and  Restaurant. Their breakfast, lunch and dinner menu's all had Country Ham on them.
I called them and said that I noticed that they sold hams too. After explaining that I was looking for a smaller quantity of ham, she said that they sold a one pound package of sliced Country Ham at the restaurant. I called my wife and told her that it was date night and that I was taking her out for dinner. Little did she know we were going to Cracker Barrel.
Grands biscuits, County Ham and Wild Maine Blueberry Jam
Back to the research... I came across several serving suggestions for biscuits and ham, other than sweet pickles. Many of them referred to the use of sweet jams, like wild berries, blackberries, blueberries, etc. Some people use a combination of sweet jams and Dijon mustard mixed together.
Country Dijon, biscuits, Country Ham, pineapple slices, orange honey
I decided that I should put my own spin on this Virginia classic. What about swapping out the fruit jams and mustard with slices of grilled pineapple for the sweet component and honey Dijon for the more savory component?
Cut slits in skin and fat

I would not be giving this ham justice if I didn't include Country Ham and Eggs with Red-Eye gravy for breakfast. For the biscuits and ham, or the ham and eggs the first step is the same. You're going to need the following:

1 lb. Country Ham, thinly sliced
1 cup coffee, to deglaze the pan 
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon butter, melted
NOTE: When we got to Cracker Barrel, our waitress told us that the 1 pound packages of Country Ham were $10.00 each. We later learned that there were two, 8 ounce slices of ham in each package.
Can you hear that sizzle

Cut large ham slices in half so they fit  your skillet. Using paper towels, dry the ham of any surface moisture, so that you cook it rather than steam it. Cut slits in the skin and fat around the ham edges to prevent the ham from curling while cooking. Place the vegetable oil and butter into a medium hot skillet (cast iron) and when the butter has melted and blended with the oil lay the ham pieces in the skillet gently. You should hear it sizzle immediately if the pan is hot enough.
Ready to flip to side 2
Don't touch the ham for at least 1-2 minutes to allow a nice crust to develop. Carefully turn the ham slices over and allow the second side to cook as well. The temperature of the ham should be 165ºF. When finished, remove the ham slices to a platter and cover with foil.  Set to the side until needed.

For the biscuits and ham you're going to need:
as needed, prepared biscuits (buttermilk, or sweet potato)
as needed, butter, softened
as needed, fruit jam or preserves (optional)  
as needed, Dijon mustard (optional)
as needed, honey, to mix with Dijon (optional)
as needed, horseradish cream sauce (optional)
as needed, pineapple slices, fresh, or canned, drained
Let's make some gravy

NOTE: If you are using the pineapple slices, place a teaspoon of brown sugar in the pan where each pineapple slice will go in the pan. Lay the pineapple slice directly on the brown sugar and let it caramelize on the first side. Carefully turn it over and caramelize the second side too.

To serve, split your biscuits in half and spread both halves lightly with softened, or compound butter. Lay slices of ham on the bottom half and top with your choice of condiment from the above list. Serve immediately.
Loosen the brown bits on the bottom of the pan

If you're making a country ham and eggs breakfast, you're going to cook the country ham exactly as described above. To make the red-eye gravy you're going to need the following:
1 cup strong black coffee, room temp
Red eye gravy

After removing the ham from the skillet, pour the coffee into the skillet, scraping pan as you go to deglaze it and loosen any browned ham bits. Continue stirring and let the gravy simmer and reduce for about 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper to taste. Serve red eye gravy with country ham slices, over grits, or sop some up with your biscuits. As they say in the south, "put some south in your mouth."
Fried eggs, country ham, grits, red-eye gravy and biscuits

Country ham dinner
If you're making grits, follow the directions on the package. The grits will take about 15-20 minutes so you should know when to get your eggs cooking.
Follow up: After I posted this story, I showed it to the woman from Virginia. I explained that I probably didn't have the right sweet pickles on hand. She explained that they used sweet pickle watermelon rind instead of sweet pickles, although either would work.
If you have any traditions, or special foods, or recipes that are unique in your family, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, leave  a comment below.
© TMelle 2014

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Walmart sells pickled watermelon rind