Ham In Hay

The cooking of ham in hay imbues it with the most wonderful and unusual flavor, while insulating the meat from any fierce heat so that it cooks in the ideal gentle fashion, resulting in the most giving of flesh.  It also fills your home with rustic, pastoral smells.  To obtain your hay ask a friendly farmer if one is at hand, or just ask around–this can have surprising productive results.  If all else fails a reliable pet shop is a good source.

You will need a pot large enough to fit a leg of pork!

Oh my.  What a week.  As my father says, “I’ve had better ones.”  Last week at least ended on a high note, as my friends Seth and Laura (more Laura than Seth) gave birth to Cecilia Ann Williams, who weighed in at 7lbs 4oz.


Congrats you two, we know that she’ll grow up to be a fantastic person under your care.

I had invited Laura to come with me to a food bloggers potluck lunch here in Austin but Cecilia had different plans, so my wife and I ventured out alone.

When we showed up the party–graciously hosted by David Ansel, AKA The Soup Peddler–was in full swing.  People had brought a variety of dishes, every one of them perfectly constructed.

When I was first invited to the potluck, I wasn’t sure what to bring.  After some searching through “The Cookbook” I settled on making a ham boiled in hay.  A massive piece of pork, cooked in a totally unique manner?  Sold!

A week and a half before the party, I walked into the local Asian market and sauntered up to the meat counter.  Asking for a whole back leg of pig made the eyes of the butcher grow wide.

“The whole leg?”

“Yessir, the whole thing.  Oh, and ten pounds of pork belly too.”

Three minutes later I walked out of the store with a 20 pound leg of pork slung over my shoulder like Paul Bunyan carrying his axe.  I had brought a cooler full of ice to put it in, but the cooler was too small.  Uh  oh.

Once home, I immediately started making the brine needed for the recipe.  At this point the recipe has been etched into my brain, so I ran around the kitchen dumping the various components into my second largest pot without needing guidance.  Time was going to be a factor, as I didn’t have enough to brine the massive leg of pork as long as Mr. Henderson had asked for, so doubling the amount of salt and sugar and spice while keeping the same amount of water would in theory make up for the shorter dunking period.  In theory.

I have a five gallon paint bucket that is used for brining Thanksgiving turkeys.  It’s a huge beast, but it was bettered by the mammoth hogs’ leg.  The only possible way to make it fit was to cut the trotter off.  I was a bit sad being forced to cut into such a nice piece of meat, but the logistics left me with little choice.  I covered the bucket and eked it into my fridge.  All I had to do now was wait.

I present you with the strangest ingredient I have ever worked with, and that’s saying something folks.

They forgot to mention that it’s also fat free.  I ran to the pet store the day before the party and came back with more than enough hay.  You’ve gotta love this next picture.

SQUEE!  It’s a cute little bale of hay!  It’s so tiny!  I’ve actually been considering submitting this picture to Cute Overload, though they’d probably just laugh at me.  My puppy did make the site once though (he’s in the first video).

I cut the twine holding the bale together and began making a little nest in my biggest stock pot, adding some bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves and juniper berries as I went along.

DAMN.  My biggest stock pot just wasn’t big enough.  I stuffed as much hay as possible around the leg and trotter and added water until I filled the rest of the pot.  The water was brought up to a boil, then down to a simmer.

Since the leg was sticking above the edge of the pot, I did my best McGuyver impression and rigged together a lid of sorts.  The only thing left to do was wait for a few hours and make the suggested mashed rutabaga to accompany the ham.

For whatever reason, I totally forgot to take a picture of the massive ham once it was done cooking.  Thankfully Rachel and Logan over at Boots in the Oven have a nice shot of the beast halfway down the page here and a great recap of all the other dishes brought to the potluck.  After we got everything setup and settled, I made myself a plate to see how the dish ended up.  The first bite of ham was a bit disappointing.  The ham really needed the extra time soaking the brine, I could barely taste the familiar corning spices.  Even more disappointing was the lack of hay flavor.  The whole thing seemed like a wasted effort until newly relocated food blogger Michael from the very well known Cooking For Engineers mentioned that the flesh had a barley-like flavor to it.  I bolted back over to the ham and cut of a piece from a different area than I had earlier.  He was right!  This was the unusual flavor Mr. Henderson had mentioned, and it worked perfectly with the unctuous fatty pork.

A fantastic, although a bit bizarre dish.  The crazy thing is, I could see myself making it again though with a smaller amount of pork.  We’ve still got 10 pounds left over!

One down, seventy nine to go.

3 thoughts on “Ham In Hay

  1. This is one of those dishes whose idea simply intrigues me. I’ve read it in “the Cookbook” and in both of Hugh Fearnley’s books as well (have you gotten your hands on either yet??) where he also makes a leg of lamb in hay. I just have never gotten the chops to make it. Now, I sure want to try, maybe with a smaller piece of pork. I actually have a pork loin brining (probably for Canadian-style bacon) alongside some brisket for corned beef. Think the loin might work if cooked for a much shorter period of time? I’m thinking in the oven, not boiled though. I’ll have to review Fearnley’s method to see what he does.

    BTW…that’s what potlucks are supposed to be like. Awesome looking food all around.

  2. This sounds amazing. I apologize for my ignorance, but what is “the Cookbook”? Part of me says that it’s probably Fergus Henderson’s book, but don’t want to assume.

    I so want to make this dish and have the opportunity to do such a thing next weekend 🙂

  3. E. Nassar! I’ve just recently picked up Hugh Fearnley’s Meat book. I really wish I’d have bought it sooner because it’s just steeped with fantastic info. I think your loin would work well, but my concern would be about the hay catching on fire after a period. Maybe if you soaked the hay overnight before packing it around the loin.

    Hello Jenn! I’m sorry, I do have a few odd idiosyncrasies, and since I carry Mr. Henderson’s cookbook around pretty much everywhere with me for the past two years its picked up a nickname. Best of luck with making this, please let me know how it turns out.

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