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'Tis the season to pig out
When the kitchen calendar flips over to December it never fails to produce a little buzz of anticipation. Winter is officially here - the season for Bara Din festivities and feasting, visits from far-flung friends and family, and the bittersweet excitement of the old year giving way to the new.
If you want to host a meal at home that truly celebrates the season, then a glazed leg of ham has everything that the festive table centerpiece demands. It has the wow factor, it's remarkably straightforward to prepare, and you have ample opportunity to experiment and tinker around with both flavours and appearance. True, you have to be generous with your time, but you don't grudge that when you're cooking a really special Christmas meal for family and friends. I usually get the ham the day before from UP Cold Storage in Kolkata's New Market. The raffish, taciturn crew that runs the place - including the fierce-looking cleaver-wielding butcher - doesn't waste time on niceties. But they know exactly what you need and inspire confidence with their unflappable air and the excellent quality of their meats. A four to six-kilo leg of ham (weight includes bone) is a manageable size and will do comfortably for up to 20 persons. The ham is immersed in a bucket of water the night before and there it stays till early morning, allowing the excessive salt of the curing process to gently leach out. The day before is also when the 'hamdekchi' - a ten-litre cooking pot large enough for the ham to fit snugly - is brought out from storage. Views on the best cooking liquid for the joint vary hugely. Anyone who does a ham has his or her own mix and will defend the formula passionately. For some, beer is the key ingredient;others - like my mum-in-law who cooks her delicious ham in a broth of winter vegetables that has roughly chopped carrots, onions, celery, turnips, bay leaves and peppercorn - feel the flavouring role of beer is exaggerated. Television chef Nigella Lawson insists that nothing trumps cooking ham in a cocktail of Coca-Cola and onion.
Being so spoilt for choices, and having tried different recipes over the years, I've now settled for a combination that borrows from various sources. Though it's never quite the same mix every time, here's the basic template. The ham goes into the pot with a couple of bottles of beer (the brew functions to intensify flavors) and four litres of apple juice (to produce rich fruity sweetness). Into this frothy golden pool of apple shandy, I throw in a bouquet of roughly chopped winter veggies, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, and a whole bunch of coriander for spicy warmth. A couple of generous spoonfuls of salt to compensate for the comprehensive desalination that took place the previous night, a swig of water to ensure the ham is submerged, and it's ready to cook.
Once the liquid comes to a roiling boil, I turn the heat down to a simmer, put the lid on, and simply leave the pot to happily burble away for the next five hours or so (the math is simple: one hour cooking time for each kilo) while I get on with side dishes and other preparations for the evening. The ham needs practically no attention in this period except the occasional check to top up the water.
When the cooking time is over, I turn off the heat but let the ham sit in its fragrant bath for another hour to prolong its steeping in the flavourful broth. This also allows the ham to cool slightly, making it easier to lift it out of the liquid.
Then I let the ham sit on the counter till it is cool enough to handle. Now is the only tricky part of the operation: peeling away the leathery skin while ensuring that the underlying layer of fat remains unscathed - a pristine white blanket for the pink, juicy meat just beneath it. At this point the ham is only too ready to shed its old skin, but a sharp knife and patience are essential to keep the fat from getting stripped away as well.
The ham's now ready to be glazed - the final phase concluding with a blast of heat in the oven, before it makes a prima donna entrance to the dining table. And this is the fun part. The quilt of fat provides a blank canvas that can be decorated in colours, taste and texture. The Jamie Oliver way involves smearing marmalade spiked with rosemary for a sophisticated, wintry taste. Or apply a rub of granulated brown sugar and mustard powder moistened with apple juice. Ten minutes in the oven and this will transform into a goldflecked coat of crunchy caramel shot through with the tang of mustard.
But for a really festive look, I opt for the spectacular effect of the classic clove-studded design. First, I brush some fruit conserve (gently heated to runny consistency) over the surface. I've been using some divine plum jam that we've been gifted from the Bhutan Queen Mother's kitchen, which provides just the right depth of tartness and sweet;but any good-quality fruit conserve will do. Next, I take the point of a knife to the crimson streaked expanse, scoring the fat diagonally to create a diamond shaped patchwork. Then I bejewel each diamond point with a clove stud and place the ham into a hot oven for about ten minutes till the glaze reaches that incredibly beautiful syrupy stickiness.
Served on a large platter, accompanied with mustard relish and a thick warm syrup of spiced up fruit conserve (try plum jam cooked with bay leaves, peppercorns and honey ), the glazed ham is the perfect dish to mark the season of good cheer and Auld Lang Syne.
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