Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Home-Cured Pork Leg Roast

The other day my butcher, Mary, suggested a boned-out leg of pork as a weekend roast; not a whole leg, but the top third of a leg. This very generous five-pound piece of meat had a nice rind on the outside for crackling and being a local, naturally raised pig, there was some good marbling throughout the meat. How could I say no to that? So, off I went with my new find.

After I got home I started to think that a roast just wasn't good enough. I wanted to cure this roast. I was thinking ham. I considered the timing; it was Thursday and I planned to eat the roast on Saturday, only about two and half days to cure. However, this wasn't a terribly thick piece of meat, so that timing just might work. Given my recent recipe of a petit sale style pork belly that only cured for four hours, two days didn't seem like that much of a stretch. 

So I went ahead and put together a salt brine. The results were beyond my expectations. 

Along with regular salt and sugar, I also employed the so-called 'pink salt' which contains potassium nitrate (salt peter). This locks the nice pink colour of the ham. I realize that the word 'nitrate' throws red flags up for our ever-health-conscious consumer, but just remember, if you have eaten any cured meat that stays pink whilst cooking, you have eaten nitrates. Meat will not stay pink without it. Just because Maple Leaf foods say that their ham is 'all natural', doesn't mean that it doesn't contain nitrates. Celery juice, the new and popular preservative for sandwich meat is chock-a-block full of nitrates. In fact, most fruits and vegetables are full of nitrates, albeit, naturally occurring nitrates. Salt peter has been used as preservative since about the thirteenth century (originally to kill botulism), and was mined for centuries from caves, so don't think this is some new industrial chemical - it is a very, very old ingredient (thus its lovely historic name salt peter). I don't care to get into the health implications of this too much, but just know that if you don't want to ingest nitrates, don't eat bacon, ham, smoked hocks, salami or any other delicious cured meats....and in any event, the amount of nitrates in home-cured products like I have made here are much lower than store-bought ham and bacon - I promise you that. The name of the game, as it seems is the case with everything, is moderation. Don't make a cured country ham once a week, make it a few times a year.

Anyway, back to the recipe. One thing I will do differently is to give the ham a slow simmer in water for a couple of hours before the roasting (this is actually a typical approach to making ham). Skipping this step resulted in ham that was just shy of the succulence I wanted - nothing that a fine bit of sweet pan gravy couldn't fix mind you. Also, the rind did not crackle up as well as I thought it would. This skin on a pig's leg is a bit thinner than on the belly or the loin, so I cut off the crackling and put it on a rack in the a hot oven for ten minutes or so whilst the ham rested. In the end it all worked out. 

The brine cure I used is based on Fergus Henderson's basic cure except I jazzed it up a bit and added the pink salt, something that Henderson does not do. I know it's a bit finicky, but I really can't stomach the idea of eating grey ham. The tiny bit of salt peter in the curing salt is all that is required for lovely pinkness. 

Home Cured Ham Roast

1 boned-out pork leg roast with rind - idealy five or so pounds

For the cure:

2 cups of granulated sugar
2 cups coarse sea salt
1/4 cup of pink curing salt (which is 6% salt peter to 94% salt)
12 juniper berries
12 cloves
12 peppercorns
12 coriander seeds
6 bay leaves

Combine all the cure ingredients into four litres of water and bring it to a boil on the stove top. This will allow the sugar and salt to melt down into the liquid. Then allow it to cool completely. I put the whole blessed pot outside in a snow drift to speed the process up (obviously you can't do that in the summer). Once cool, use a non reactive vessel such as plastic or earthenware to hold your pork leg, or in my case, I simply lined a large stock pot with doubled-up plastic bags. Get your pork leg in there and cover it with the now cool brine. This brine is probably fine to be kept in a cool dry non-refrigerated place, but as Henderson puts it, "just in case, in these somewhat bacterially anxious days, it is probably not a bad thing to keep your brine and its contents in your fridge." In my case I kept the brine vessel on the front covered porch, which while protected from the worst of the elements, is quite cold and ideal for this situation. The pork sits in the brine for 48 hours. Once the brining process is done, you need to soak the pork in clean, cold water for at least an hour or so. This reduces any overwhelming saltiness. Than this is were my actual experience diverges from the recipe. I would recommend at this point to then gently simmer the ham in a lightly seasoned water with more bay leaf, an onion, and a carrot or two for about an hour and a half. this will create a softer texture and reduce the required roasting time. After its simmer, remove the ham and allow it to cool and dry a bit. Remove the rind and put it aside, then score the fat on top of your ham, get it into a roasting tin along with a few onions and cloves of garlic (skin on) and maybe half a cup of water in the bottom to get things going. Once the water has started to evaporate in the roasting tin and being replaced with ham juice, pour in a bit of apple juice and use this to baste the ham every ten minutes or so. Top up with water or more apple juice if the bottom starts to dry out and catch. Once the ham is done, take it out and let it rest, and get your pork rind into the oven to crisp up. Serve the ham with the crackling on the side with creamy mashed spuds and some proper English peas. I was able to make a pan gravy by simply deglazing the roasting tin with a bit of wine and leftover stock from the simmering process. 

A 48-hour brined ham is, in terms of a typical store-bought ham, a very light cure; it is not nearly as salty as the store bought stuff, in fact, you may even be inclined to sprinkle a bit of salt on the finished product (if you're a salt-head like me). The flavour that really comes through is the sweetness of the sugar and the almost 'Christmasy' spice blend of juniper and clove. Either way, I suppose because of the salt peter, you could scrutinize the term 'natural' to describe this. Although given that salt peter is a naturally occuring mineral, what is natural anyway? What I do know, is that this beautiful ham was a far cry from that insipid hair-net covered stuff I've bought wrapped in plastic. It also tastes a heck of a lot better. 

Morevover, given all the trouble over in Europe about interloping horse meat in burgers, it is great solace knowing from which farm this pig originated and who slaughtered and butchered it. A truly local ham this was.

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