When you cook something you’ve never cooked before, there’s always trepidation in the first taste. I get that I-sure-hope-this-doesn’t-suck feeling every time I try something new, whether it’s a dish I’ve concocted or a recipe I’ve followed to the letter (that noise you hear is Kevin snorting from across the room – his way of expressing incredulity at the idea that I have ever, since the dawn of time, followed a recipe to the letter).
There are factors that increase the trepidation. If you’ve spent a long time on it, that ups the ante. Ditto if it’s got expensive ingredients. If you’re having dinner guests you’re trying to impress, you probably already have Plan B on the (figurative) back burner. Some dishes just have more at stake.
So let’s say, to pick an example at random, the dish in question is a prosciutto. You raised the pigs yourself. You slaughtered them. Under the supervision of a first-class butcher, you cured four of their hams. You hung them in a friend’s basement for almost two years. You distributed three to the three friends who’d signed up for this crazy experiment when you first got your pigs, and you took the fourth one home.
The food trepidation was off the charts. I have never, in my entire eating life, had as much invested in a food as Kevin and I had in this ham. We wanted to do right not just by our friends, three of whom now had an entire prosciutto in their larder, but by our pig, Spot. Spot was excellent, both as pig and as pork, and we wanted a ham worthy of her.
We picked it up from our friends Al and Christl, who had been hamsitting all four prosciuttos for the last 18 months. Their basement has a fairly constant temperature and humidity, and was the best ham-drying spot we knew. They also had skin in the game, as one of the hams was for them.
The hams had lost about a third of their weight, and had compressed from a round, haunchy shape to a flat, hammy shape. Along the way, they’d gotten some mold on the outside, but it was mold that smelled like bread, not mold that smelled like mold. Given the dampness of our house, I am something of an authority on mold that smells like mold, and I can assure you that what colonized the outside of our prosciuttos was a different organism.
We used a stiff brush to remove most of the mold, and then a clean towel to get in the crevices, as we had been instructed by Rook, the butcher who had cured two of the hams for us, and had overseen our curing of the other two. (Rook, who is known to people who haven’t shared pork-related bonding experiences with him as Jarrod Spangler, has recently opened his own shop, Maine Meat, in the lovely town of Kittery, which is right over the river from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Go visit him, and make sure to taste his coppa, if you’re ever within shouting distance.)
Once de-molded, our ham was simply gnarly. Although the skin side was beautifully smooth, the meat surface was hard, dry, and irregular. The exposed fat had turned yellow. There were specks of white where the salt had collected on the surface. There were still a couple spots of light-green mold in the crevices. It was hairy.
It sure looked beautiful to us, though. And it smelled good. We were ready to try it. But we didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to cut it up.
You know that expression, “no matter how you slice it?” Did you ever notice that it’s never applied to things that are actually sliced? The slicing is always figurative, and usually of the circumstances related to things like plagiarism or bribery or political shenanigans. Nobody ever says that, no matter how you slice it, it’s bread.
Well, there is nothing for which the slicing matters more than a cured ham. If you slice it correctly, it’s prosciutto. Slice it incorrectly, and it’s some kind of chewy bastardization suitable only for the soup pot.
There was a lot on the line.
The first step to the proper slicing of prosciutto is a ham stand. This is not some kind of fancy-pants, nice-to-have accoutrement designed to make some ham slicers feel superior to others. You slice a ham from the side, and you need some way to hold the damn thing up.
That said, there are ham stands that run hundreds of dollars, clearly designed to make some ham slicers feel superior to others. But there are also lots of utility ham stands, priced in double rather than triple digits, that simply get the job done.
I mentioned this to Kevin. “Honey,” I said, “There are lots of utility ham stands, priced in double rather than triple digits, that simply get the job done.” Those of you who know Kevin, either personally or through these chronicles of our adventures, can imagine what he thought of that. Holding a ham in place may be a consumerist opportunity for those effete Spaniards, with their precious jamon, or the status-conscious Italians, with their prosciutto di Parma, but here in America we solve that problem with good old-fashioned ingenuity and a few stainless steel screws.
Kevin chose, as his base, a heavy cutting board from Ikea ($14.99). He attached to it an oak baluster from Home Depot ($9.99). At the top of the baluster he affixed a stainless steel clamp, also from Home Depot ($3.91). The screws, he already had. Total price: $28.89. And it came with a bonus! I learned what a ‘baluster’ is. Extra points for any engineering solution that incorporates new vocabulary words.
We put the ham in the stand, and then we watched about 87 YouTube videos about how to slice a prosciutto. And then, trepidatiously, we made the first cut into our ham, two years in the making. Two and a half, if you count raising the pigs.
Thanks to Spot, and to Rook, and to Al and Christl’s basement, it’s delicious.