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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jen, still want the turducken?

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Fanfare for the City Ham, a Country Cousin

Published: December 20, 2006

TO Southerners like us, the apotheosis of pork is country ham — the hind leg of a pig that has been immersed in rock salt, hung in a smokehouse, then aged for many months to prosciutto-like firmness. We have hallowed country ham in national magazines, clucked over the decline of its mostly artisanal production and driven close to a thousand miles for a particularly fine Kentucky specimen. We have spent more on these hams in some years than we have on health insurance. We’ve even given them as wedding gifts.

So our dirty little secret, the one that may cost us our invitation to the next Southern Foodways Symposium, is that we are not, in fact, pork purists: we’re suckers for a glazed baked ham, those brine-plumped, brown-sugar-encrusted pork bombs that anchor the buffet line in all 50 states at this time of year. Their rosy sheen, firm salt quotient, flaky texture, sweet edge and bacony, clove-scented flavor invariably bring us back to the table for thirds and fourths. There, we’ve said it: we love regular baked ham.

We were surprised (and perhaps even vindicated) by our recent odyssey through the best of New York City’s homegrown hams — city ham, if you will. Where a country ham might be cured for weeks in dry salt, then smoked, then aged for a year (or two), city hams seem like a shortcut. They are soaked in or injected with a brine of water, salt and sugar before being cooked and then smoked for a few hours. The whole process may take less than two days.

As you might expect, there are differences in taste and texture, too. Country hams have the leathery texture of serrano ham and an earthy flavor that comes from long aging. But in many cases, the New York hams we tasted — and we sampled more than 25 of them, from 10 producers — delivered pork sensations every bit as nuanced, rich and magnificent as their country kin.

Tucked away at the back of meat markets that blend in with storefront real-estate agencies and baby boutiques or in low-rise industrial buildings in residential neighborhoods, the smokehouses of New York City tend to be invisible, their secret discernible only upon stepping through the front door and deeply inhaling. And, in fact, some producers seem to prefer it that way.

“I don’t show anybody what we do,” said Jerry Kurowycky (pronounced kur-VITZ-kee), the owner of Kurowycky Meat Products, as he ushered us past refrigerator cases of hot mustard and Polish butter at the front of his store, on First Avenue in the East Village. “But I’m happy to give you a general idea.”

So we followed Mr. Kurowycky, who on a balmy December day wore shorts and flip-flops, through a narrow passageway to a tiled preparation area with a brick floor. Recessed into the back wall were four soot-black smoking chambers with heavy iron double-doors. A shovel leaned against a large paper bag of hardwood chips at one end of the room.

Mr. Kurowycky, whose grandfather Erast bought the store from a former employer in 1955, claims he makes hams exactly the way his grandfather did in the Ukraine before World War II, by hand-rubbing fresh hams with salt and sodium nitrite, then letting them cure in pans for two weeks. He then rinses them, cooks them for six hours, and hangs them in the smoker overnight. Finally, they are glazed with brown sugar. “But that’s strictly for decoration,” he said.

Mr. Kurowycky’s ham may be unique among the city hams we sampled for its dry cure; most cured hams today are immersed in or injected with a liquid brine, which speeds the process.

Indeed, his ham appeared a shade drier and more muscular than the wet-brined New York City hams we tasted, but its silky texture and prominent smoke flavor stood out, too. It had a decent layer of fat and some marbling, with a sweet nuttiness, and an appetizing but unobtrusive saltiness.

posted by Steve @ 1:26:00 AM

1:26:00 AM

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