Getting the Best Out of a Virginia Ham

The chances of anyone sending me a smoked Virginia ham are remote. The only one I ever had was a gift from a client of Doug's who lived in Virginia. And I told you about the disaster it was to cook and serve it. I had envisioned a ham, sitting in stately succulence on my great-grandmother's platter, surrounded by beaten biscuits (whatever they are), candied sweet potatoes, pickled peaches, green beans and corn pudding.

What I got was something that tasted like a cross between jerky and anchovies. Not good.

After I wrote about it, Eileen Spady of Hampton Roads, Va., wrote to me telling me how to solve the problem. It took me so long to get her letter because I don't go into the august Times very often since the black day when I bought the computer.

(I write the column and it goes to The Times on (in?) a modem. I do not know what this is. I visualize the column flying into one of those wire baskets and slipping into a tube about the size of a large frozen orange juice can, and then the whole thing sliding along the telephone wires the way the baskets and tubes used to at Holman's Department Store in Pacific Grove. Of course, I know it doesn't work that way because nothing connected with a computer could be that sensible.)

Here's what Eileen says: "I have just read your article and I am so sorry that your Virginia ham dinner turned into such a disaster.

"However, I am quite puzzled. For one to have the culinary knowledge to make a souffle, hot curried fruit, etc., one should also realize that while one is boiling a ham, the salt is being cooked into it rather than being boiled out.

"Properly cooked, your ham is truly a delicacy and if you ever find yourself in Virginia, I will cook you a dinner of ham, collards and hayman (sic) potatoes that will make you think you have died and gone to heaven. This invitation is sincerely offered.

"In the event you should ever receive another ham, I am enclosing a recipe that never fails. If you should choose not to cook the ham, you might call my sister over in Fullerton. I am sure she will take it off your hands in a heartbeat. You see, she feels quite insecure if she doesn't always have one laid by.

"At any rate, Ma'am, please don't throw it away because they ain't cheap.

"Yours truly,

Eileen Spady."

And this is Eileen's Virginia ham recipe:

Put the ham into a tamale pan and cover with cold water. After five, six hours, remove the ham and scrape off all the pepper that can be removed. Replace the ham in fresh water and continue soaking and cleaning (always changing the water) for about 48 hours. Not to worry, you won't drown it. After this soaking, your ham is ready to be baked.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place ham in roaster with tight-fitting lid. Place in oven to bake for 20-25 minutes. Turn oven off. Leave ham in oven for three hours. DO NOT OPEN OVEN DOOR. At the end of three hours, turn oven to 500 degrees. After the oven reaches this temperature, bake for another 20-25 minutes. Turn oven off. Leave ham in oven for another three hours. DO NOT OPEN OVEN DOOR. If you are cooking ham in the evening, it may be left in the oven overnight.

I am grateful to Eileen for her recipe and if that nice man in Virginia ever sends us another one, I'll try it. As a temporary measure, I'll continue to buy a precooked ham and use the glaze Dr. Arvid Unterman told me about. He is a delightful friend who is blessed with a hungry mind. His interests are many and diverse, ranging from local government to Egyptian tombs and he knows a good bit about each of them. After an hour with Arvid, I feel as if I should have earned some graduate school credits.

Patsy and I did the ham his way last time. We scored the ham quite deeply and then made the glaze--a jar of cranberry sauce and orange relish, brown sugar and a splash of vinegar. Put that on the ham for the last half hour of baking and spoon it over the top several times.

I have some questions for Eileen. I can go to bed during that soak and scrub process, can't I? And maybe a nap during those three-hour rests in the oven? Otherwise, it's going to take 72 hours to get that delicious ham on great-grandmother's platter, and my attention span, normally that of a butterfly, will wane and flag, and I'll be tempted to fall back on the old faithful meat loaf. I really won't, Eileen, because I am true-blue. A poor ham cook but true-blue.

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