I’m practical and hungry, a duo that makes leftovers the best part of any meal.
But before the leftovers, of course, comes the ham in all its glory, tender slices gleaming as it’s served on what we hope will be a warm, sunny day.
For years, my single oven was stuffed with the foods of the holiday as I tried to make all the dishes of dinner finish at the same time, sometimes “borrowing” the oven of a neighbor who was out of town to allow for more space.
Then I discovered a mighty secret that has changed my ham prep forever: I cook it in the slow cooker, which frees up the oven for the egg dishes, roasted asparagus or whatever else grabs my fancy as cook.
It’s an embarrassingly easy way to cook the main course for a family gathering. First I sprinkle brown sugar in the bottom of a 5-quart slow cooker. Then I add a half ham, up to 10 pounds in size, which sometimes requires a bit of cutting to fit it comfortably into the appliance — no squeezing allowed (food in there needs space). More brown sugar lands on top of the ham before the slow cooker is covered and switched to “on.” Three hours later — or six to eight, depending on the temperature — and the meal is ready while the oven is free for other foods.
Better late than never, but I could have used that discovery decades ago.
Now let’s move on to the close of the meal, when the ham bone is lying on the cutting board, a bit bereft and ravaged. (You do buy ham with the bone-in, right? Because that’s where all the flavor comes from, as any butcher will tell you.)
No need to wait until your company has left before you start making the stock. I never do. The process is as natural and efficient for me as putting away leftovers.
With a few quick moves, I cut off any significant chunks of ham and refrigerate them to use later to finish the soup. Then I heft that ham bone into my biggest stock pot, fill it with water and bring it to a simmer.
If you can excuse yourself gracefully from your company, you can add the rest of the ingredients that will make up the stock — carrots and celery cut in chunks, with some celery leaves to throw in (really, for this soup, try to buy celery with leaves as it adds so much flavor to the soup), an onion that’s been quartered, a few peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves. You can do all this in less than 10 minutes. But if you can’t leave your guests alone, add the vegetables as soon as they leave.
Let the soup simmer for up to two hours — long enough to squeeze every bit of flavor out of the ingredients, but not so much that you simmer away the liquid (add more water if the level drops too low).
And that’s it for making stock. Almost as easy — and painless — as cooking the ham itself.
Next step is to defat the stock. I do this by refrigerating the hot stock until it has cooled and the fat has risen to the top and solidified. Letting it cool overnight works best for me, but you can do this however you see fit.
We’ll reach for the vegetables again when we need to finish the soup — for me that’s the next day. I turn to the medley of vegetables called mirepoix — carrots, celery and onion — which will be diced and sautéed in a little olive oil before being added to the stock to cook further. Split peas will be tossed in at this point, either the green or yellow variety (my preference is for yellow, which is a bit milder in flavor). Simmer them in the stock for half an hour, or until the peas are tender. At that point, the leftover ham, cut into bite-size chunks, is added and heated through. Purée the soup or not, as you wish.
And another meal is ready, whether or not there’s a crowd at the table.
That’s my kind of cooking.
Split Pea Soup
Dry split peas come in either yellow or green. The yellow ones are milder in flavor, though sometimes hard to find; the green taste, well, greener. Either works well. Check through the split peas and rinse them before adding to the soup. When you’re dicing the vegetables for the soup (which is different from when you are cutting them up for the stock), make sure that all of the vegetables are cut in the same size. My preference is for them to be diced very small, but if you like larger chunks in your soup, by all means cut them that way. The bigger the pieces of vegetables are, the longer it will take for them to soften. This is a versatile recipe, so if you prefer more or fewer vegetables in the soup, add them accordingly. You’re the cook!
For the stock:
3 carrots, cut in chunks
3 or 4 ribs of celery, with leaves, cut in several pieces
1 large onion, cut in quarters
1 to 2 teaspoons peppercorns
2 bay leaves
For the soup:
3 carrots, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 ribs of celery, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (16-ounce) bag split peas (also see variation), picked over and rinsed
2 cups chopped or diced ham
Fill a large pot with 20 cups water and add the ham bone, carrot chunks, celery and onion. Add the peppercorns and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Simmer, uncovered, for at least an hour and up to 2 hours, watching the level of water, adding more water if the level drops too much. (The liquid will reduce by about half if you simmer it for 2 hours.)
Remove the soup pot from the heat and carefully strain the solid ingredients, discarding them. Refrigerate the stock to cool. (To protect the refrigerator shelf, I always put a potholder under the bowl when I put the hot liquid into the cold refrigerator.)
The next day (or once the stock is cool), skim off the fat that has solidified on top of the soup and discard it. Begin to warm the stock over medium heat.
Meanwhile, sauté the diced carrots, onion and celery in oil for 5 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the cooked vegetables to the stock, along with the split peas, and bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the soup for about 35 minutes, or until the peas are soft. Add the ham in the last 10 minutes or so.
If you prefer the soup puréed, use a blender to purée it (if using a counter blender, do a few cups at a time). If you would like a little texture to the soup, skip that step.
Variation: Instead of split peas, use beans (cooked Great Northern or pintos are good), or add diced potatoes and cooked bacon, along with some greens and the usual carrot-celery-onion medley, to the stock. Or use sweet potatoes with some greens in the stock. You also could make the soup with water, chicken or vegetable broth rather than the ham stock.
Brown Sugar Ham
Need space in your oven for many dishes to cook? Prepare a ham in a slow cooker with lots of brown sugar. (A 5-quart slow cooker can hold up to a 10-pound ham. Do not let the ham touch the top of the cooker; cut the ham to fit the cooker, if necessary.) You won’t need to add any water to the slow cooker because ham contains a significant amount of water. Only have ham slices? The brown sugar method also works if you’re cooking a few slices on top of the stove in a skillet.
Brown sugar (for an 8-pound ham, use about 2 cups)
Ham (chunk or slices)
In a slow cooker or skillet, sprinkle half the brown sugar. Place ham, flat side down, on sugar and sprinkle remaining brown sugar on top.
In a slow cooker, heat on low for 6 to 8 hours, or on high for about 3 hours. In a skillet, cook until meat is thoroughly heated through and sugar has melted and caramelized on meat.