At the 40-year-old Carolina Country Store on Atlantic Avenue, which we profiled in our fall travel issue, one of the specialties of the house is from Westwater Country Hams of Warsaw, North Carolina, just 10 miles from the coastal plains farmstead owned by the founder of the store.
Some American country hams — they’re cured with a lot of salt, then sometimes smoked and aged — are now designed to be sliced thinly and served like prosciutto at fine restaurants. But old-fashioned versions like Westwater’s have traditionally been sliced thickly then cooked with a little moisture to remove some of the saltiness before they’re eaten.
Many southern ham producers recommend starting with a quick soak of your slices in water (a must for first-timers) and then slowly cooking the slices in a small amount of a carbonated beverage or apple juice with equal parts water. You can cook your slices without liquid, but it tends to stick to the pan and make a mess. Riffing on red-eye gravy, which is made by adding coffee to drippings, we tried cooking our Westwater ham with Manhattan Special’s excellent espresso soda, a Brooklyn-made favorite. It gave our slices a subtle coffee flavor and a bit of sweetness. A good quality local apple juice is also nice, though your slices will end up slightly sweeter.
Here’s the how-to:
1. Soak slices in lukewarm water for 30 minutes before frying, more if you’re salt averse.
2. Mix 1/4 cup Manhattan Special or apple juice and 1/4 cup water in a measuring cup. Use just enough to cover the bottom of the skillet — preferably a cast iron pan — the same way you’d cover the pan with oil for a sauté.
3. Remove ham slices from the water and place in the cold skillet, turning the fatty part of the ham toward the center, or what will be the hottest part of the pan.
4. Turn the head to low, or medium low, so the water begins to gently simmer. Fry the slices slowly, turning frequently. The slices will begin to curl, and the liquid to reduce. You want to remove them from the pan to a paper towel or cutting board before the liquid totally reduces and the sugars begin to burn. It’s not long — usually about 5 to 8 minutes. (Remove the skillet from the heat so the reduced liquid won’t burn after the ham is removed, too.)
5. Serve with hot biscuits and molasses, or more appropriately in the northeast, an earthy local honey or Grade B maple syrup.
Photo Credit: John Taggart