Welcome to the Commonwealth of Virginia: The Old Dominion

Virginia It’s interesting to me that while Delaware has the distinction of being the first state, Virginia is the home of the first US colony–Jamestown, founded in 1607. Jamestown was, in fact, the first English settlement in the Americas. Despite this early start, it wasn’t until June of 1788 that Virginia entered the Union as the tenth of the original 13 colonies–about 6 months after Delaware ratified the new US Constitution.

Topographically, Virginia is fairly diverse. Virginia Beach and Newport News sit on the state’s eastern border with the Atlantic Ocean while the Appalachian chain defines the western boundary. The entire state lies south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in many ways it is this arbitrary border that defines its character.

The food traditions of Virginia include seafood such as clams and crabs along the coast, and some classic Appalachian foods like fried apple pies (or hand pies, depending who you ask) and dandelion greens to the west. But mostly, Virginia is known for its ham, with the true classic being the Smithfield.

It is important to note here that Smithfield denotes a town in Virginia, rather than the Smithfield conglomerate which has its largest facility in North Carolina rather than Virginia. Believe it or not, if the subject is Smithfield ham, the location matters as much as the process.

A true Smithfield ham is considered a delicacy. Dry-cured without sugar and traditionally smoked over hickory and/or applewood, it can be aged up to a year before sale. Similar to the Smithfield, and more readily available in other parts of the US is its cousin country ham. Country ham tends to have a milder cure (less salt), and a shorter aging time making it a milder product overall.

Can I just interrupt myself here to say that reading about the Smithfield process is the thing that led me to the decision to build a smokehouse in my back yard?

Anyway. True Smithfield hams can only come from Smithfield, Virginia (and not Tar Heel, North Carolina no matter what the Smithfield corporation tells us). Also interesting is that originally, in order to be considered a Smithfield ham the meat not only had to be processed in Smithfield, but the hog had to have been feed an exclusively peanut diet. That peanut thing has changed over time as humans have found other things to do with peanuts, leading to higher prices that make it difficult if not impossible to use them exclusively as feed. But I can’t help wondering how it would impact the flavor of the ham.

So ham, obviously, is on our menu. Inspiration for the second Virginia dish comes from Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways. The site offers an intriguing look at the food traditions of the early, wealthy colonists. In contrast to fried pies, collard greens, and ham, the wealthy table included chicken pudding, syllabub, and other rich dishes that the early colonists brought from England.

In honor of these diverse traditions we’re going to make two very different dishes. The first is Forced Asparagus in French rolls–a classically wealthy, and English (by way of the Romans, who took asparagus everywhere because they adored it), dish. The second is ham biscuits–food for the rest of us. And I’ll confess right now that this is the one place where I’ve broken my own rules and ordered a true Smithfield ham because I just can’t find anything like it in my part of New York.

Ham Biscuits

I quite suspect that Virginia’s ham biscuits are analogous to South Carolina’s shrimp and grits–a dish popularized by workers who need something hearty and sustaining to start off the day. In my humble opion, ham biscuits have one huge advantage over breakfast shrimp and grits: they’re portable. I can give one to the kiddo as he’s walking out the door for school, and even tuck one into his lunch for good measure. A bowl of shrimp and grits would be a lot harder to eat while walking.

In the introduction to Virginia, I wrote about Virginia ham–particularly what allows ham to take on the designation “Smithfield.” And out of curiosity’s sake, I ordered packs of both Smithfield and country ham from Smithfield Farms.

The Tale of Two Hams

The Tale of Two Hams

They were remarkably dissimilar given that they’re kind of the same thing. Flavor-wise, the country ham most closely resembles classic Easter ham–the sort of ham our parents and grandparents served before there was a spiral-cut Honeybaked option. A little salty, a little fatty, a lot porky. It tasted like good ham.

The Smithfield on the other ham…er, hand…is something completely different. Its flavor profile bellows classic Parma prosciutto rather than what we Americans call “ham”. Think salty, dense, and a touch musky with the slightest hint of juniper berries and you’re about there. It’s a little overwhelming on its own–this is ham with an attitude problem, and it doesn’t care what you think. And I’ll just admit right now that it went pretty beautifully with the rage biscuits I made this morning.

I can’t picture myself sitting down to a big, traditional ham dinner of thinly-sliced Smithfield ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans, but Smithfield ham served with biscuits and a sweet mustard? It’s a definite treat, but be sure keep an open mind and don’t expect them to taste like they were made with honey-glazed ham.

For this dish, I started with fresh buttermilk biscuits (made in a rage this morning, thanks to 1) the cats knocking something over 3:30, leaving me unable to go back to sleep 2) the challenge of figuring out where my boys have put my baking tools (please note that this is not a complaint about the boys. They’ve been on dish duty for almost two months now and the fact that things are clean and not spread across the house makes me happy. Unless it’s 3:30 AM) and 3) unearthing the ingredients from a pantry that has collapsed in on itself like a black hole made of jaggery, cumin, and steel-cut oats. Somehow, despite the rage, the biscuits turned out really, really well. These were split in half, shmeared with either bourbon-maple or honey mustard, and then finished with the very thinly-sliced ham.

What we discovered was that we preferred the honey mustard, which is sweeter, with the Smithfield, and the bourbon-maple with the country ham. Why? Because the Smithfield demanded sweetness to balance it in order to make a good biscuit. The honey mustard is traditionally used in ham biscuits, and it makes a lot of sense now that we’ve tried it. The bourbon-maple mustard, though, was hardly a slouch. It wasn’t quite sweet enough to play nicely with the Smithfield, but it has definite merits in other applications.

There are 3 parts to this recipe: the biscuits, the mustard, and the ham. The ham is the easiest part, obviously, since I just had to open the packages. The mustards were easy as well–mix 1 tablespoon of stone-ground whole-grain mustard with a half teaspoon of honey or bourbon-maple syrup. Plain maple will also work nicely, though it’ll lack the bourbony undertones that add a nice depth to the spread.

Bourbon-barrel maple syrup, honey, and whole grain mustard

Bourbon-barrel maple syrup, honey, and whole grain mustard

But the biscuits. Oh, the biscuits. These were good with ham. They’re good with apple butter. And breakfast sandwiches. And sausage gravy. And just because it’s Tuesday morning and the cat knocked over something in the kitchen woke you up at 3:30 in the morning and you couldn’t get back to sleep. They’re just…good.

Ham Biscuits

Makes 8-12

Ingredients

2 cups + 1/8 cup AP flour

3 Tbs buttermilk powder*

1 Tbs baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

5 Tbs cold, cold butter, cut into cubes

1 cup (more or less) cold water*

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400º

Stir 2 cups of the flour, the buttermilk powder (if using), baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl

Peas, meet bulgur

Peas, meet bulgur

Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles the love child of peas and bulgur wheat*

Add all but 1 oz of the water and stir gently. If dough is dry*, add remainder of water.

Sprinkle your countertop or work surface with some of the reserved flour

Turn dough out onto surface, sprinkle more of reserved flour over the top

Knead, very very gently, about 10 times. You want the dough to come together, but nothing more than than. Over-worked biscuits, like over-worked pie crust, are tough. And nobody likes tough biscuits (except the squirrels. They don’t mind them so much).

IMG_8050_2Using just your fingertips, shape the dough into a rectangle about 1/2″ thick

Cut biscuits into shapes* and transfer onto a parchment-lined* baking sheet. For softer, southern-style biscuits, be sure the edges are touching

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until puffy and golden-brown

Just looking at this makes me a little happier.

Just looking at this makes me a little happier.

At this point you can eat them as is, or continue on to make ham biscuits.

For Ham Biscuits

Let biscuits cool slightly–just enough to handle them

Split open

Slather mustard on the biscuit

Top with the ham

Eat

Notes

I keep buttermilk powder on hand for baking purposes. If you have actual buttermilk, use one cup of that in place of the buttermilk powder and water. You can also make a serviceable substitute by adding about a tablespoon of acidic liquid such as vinegar or lemon juice to your measuring cup and then topping it off with plain (sweet) milk. If you use this option, be sure to mix it together about 5 minutes before you use it.

If you don’t have a pastry blender, a pair of knives will do well enough.

Bakers will tell you dry doughs can be caused by too much dry ingredient, ambient humidity, age of the flour, using volume v. weight for measurement, and a dozen other causes. So start conservatively–you can add more water as you go.

Traditionally, biscuits are cut into circles. The problem with this method is that there are always leftover scraps. While those can be re-rolled and re-cut, the texture will suffer a fair bit. For home use, I just grab a pizza cutter and cut them into squares or diamonds. They still taste like biscuits and the texture doesn’t suffer.

Parchment is optional. There’s enough butter in these babies that they don’t stick to much of anything.

Rage biscuits!

Rage biscuits!

Asparagus Forced in French Rolls

I’ve been puzzling over the word “Forced” in this recipe. Is a nod to the design element of asparagus forced into the bread, or is it a reference to how the asparagus itself was forced to grow? A definite answer eludes me, but I’m guessing it’s the latter, though I rather like the whimsy of the first.

Forcing woody produce, such as asparagus and rhubarb, is a growing technique that essentially keeps the plant in the dark until it is ready for harvest–white asparagus, typically only found in early spring, is a good example. The white color is the result of being kept way from the light so that chlorophyll cannot develop. An extreme example of the technique is the rhubarb triangle in West Yorkshire, England, where growers keep rhubarb perpetually in the dark so as to prevent all chlorophyll development. They then go to the extreme of harvesting it by candlelight. The stalks grown in this forced manner remain tender and pink, without the woody/stringiness of more conventionally grown rhubarb. For those of us (like me) who are either curious or plain incredulous about such things, the BBC series “Kew on a Plate” takes a camera crew inside the forcing sheds where, given the candlelit harvest, there’s a hint of cult-like fanaticism surrounding the rhubarb.

Clearly, traveling to West Yorkshire to experience forced rhubarb is now on my bucket list.

Sir Humphry Davy, in an 1907 issue of The Gardener’s Magazine further indicates that the process of forcing asparagus and rhubarb is a winter activity that requires a gradual raising of temperature within the greenhouse while still avoiding sunlight.  By starting the process in November, according to Davy, one will be the envy of his or her friends come Christmastime.  To this end, for Colonial Americans, presenting a dish of forced asparagus at any time of year would’ve proved to be a fine amusement that was apropos to the time and place. Colonial Williamsburg Foodways tells us that guests at a dinner parties in early America would’ve looked to the food presentation as part of the entertainment. Lest we dismiss the Colonial foodies as being a wee bit over the top, Karen Hammonds over at Revolutionary Pie points out that the Food Network carries on this tradition quite admirably. Perhaps those colonists were also food visionaries.

Cooking in a cast is proving to be an adventure all its own, and I mention this only because the hubs has had to take on some of the stove-top duties. I keep asking the poor man to do things he’s never tried before, and while he’s both a decent cook in his own right, and game for whatever I ask, the results are sometimes variable. In this case, he had to make a custard (the bane of many highly experienced chefs) that ended up very tasty, though slightly scrambled-eggy in consistency. Interestingly, the texture worked well in this dish. Despite its rough texture and Colonial quirkiness, we all enjoyed it–even the 13 year old.

In an attempt to modernize the dish, I tried a variant substituting puff pastry for the French rolls and made it into something more closely resembling a tart. Surprisingly, it didn’t work nearly as well. The inherent sweetness of the pastry made the dish almost dessert-like and really, I don’t know many people who would appreciate an asparagus dessert. If I were to try that version again, I would probably sharpen the custard with a bit of goat cheese and garnish it with lemon-infused hollandaise. Regardless, the original will probably make its way onto our table again in the future.

Asparagus Forced in French Rolls

(adapted from Colonial Williamsburg Foodways)

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 French Rolls

12 stalks of asparagus (apx 1/2 of a medium bunch)

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 egg yolks

1/2 tsp salt

Pinch of nutmeg

1-2 Tbs butter

Instructions

  • Slice the tops off of the French rolls, leaving about 2″ of the bottom. Remove most of the bread from the bottoms (save it for croutons or breadcrumbs), creating a small bowl. Using a paring knife, cut three asparagus-circumfrenced holes in IMG_7948each of the tops. Set aside.
  • Trim the tough part away from the asparagus stalks* and lightly steam them. They should be bright green but still have a bit of snap–about 4 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Pour heavy cream, salt, and nutmeg into a small, heavy pan and whisk together. Over medium-low heat, bring to a simmer–just short of boiling.
  • While cream is warming, whisk egg yolks together in a small bowl.
  • Trim off the top 3″ of the asparagus stalks and reserve the tops. Chop the remaining stalks into 1/2″ pieces.
  • Once cream is simmering, slowly temper the egg yolks by adding the cream, about 2 tablespoons at a time to the bowl while whisking with great purpose*
  • When eggs are heated through, pour tempered mixture into the remaining cream and simmer until the texture becomes a moderately dense custard. Stir in asparagus pieces and turn off the heat.
  • Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat
  • When butter is melted and hot, sauté the tops of your French rolls until they are browned and a bit crispy.
  • Fill the bottoms of your rolls with the asparagus custardIMG_7959
  • Force the asparagus tops into the holes you’ve made in the tops of your rolls–you may need to re-pierce them with your paring knife–then place on the custard-filled bottoms.
  • Serve warm

Notes

The easiest way to trim the woody stems off of asparagus is this: using one stalk from your bunch, hold the top and bottom loosely in your hands and break it. Asparagus tends to break at the point where the the stalk becomes tender. Once you’ve done this, line up the rest of your asparagus with the tops even, and use your knife to cut at the break point.

Egg tempering is an art all its own. If you’re a Food Network watcher, you’ve seen more than one professional chef completely scramble his or her custard. For more about technique, including a better description than I’ve given here, check out this wikiHow article.