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Cooking with ham hocks

 Ham hocks
Ham hocks

Let's get a little bit oriented. The ham hock is the part of the hog's leg

just above the foot (also called the trotter). Higher up the leg, below the shoulder is the portion called the ham shank.

The ham hock is a lump of meat, bone, gristle and hide bout the size of a softball. Its principal virtue is that it is loaded with flavor. There is quite a bit of

meat in a ham hock that is very tasty, but there is also a lot of high quality fat, collagen and cartilage that melt away and add lip-smacking savoriness to your dish.

Ham hocks are usually sold pre-cooked, and often smoked. If you get a smoked hock you may want to soak it overnight to get rid of some of the saltiness.

Otherwise, they are ready to use.

You can braise a ham hock, trim it up and serve it as a meat course. But most commonly it is used as a flavoring ingredient. That is why so many hearty winter soups and stews call for the ham hock as an essential part of the dish.

When I'm making soups with ham hocks I take the time to score the thick skin of the hock. Once cooked I can then easily trim away the skin and excess fat to reveal the meat beneath. It's then a simple matter to cut away the chunks of ham and return them to the soup kettle.

I recently talked about making split pea and ham soup, which is a standard dish in our home. Of course it is the ham hock that contributes the ham to the broth.

An equally celebrated role for the ham hock is in Capitol Hill Bean Soup, a dish perfected in the kitchens of the House of Representatives. It has been reported that the Bean Soup could generate a warm glow of bipartisanship.

Closely related to that is traditional home-made pork and beans. Cook the ham hock with the beans for several hours, then add back the trimmed meat which will stand in succulent contrast to the tender beans.

There is a staple dish that is popular in the South and that is ham hocks and collard greens. This is a recipe that is custom made for the slow cooker. It's a happy mélange of collard greens, ham hocks, onions, chicken broth and assorted seasonings. But the most important ingredient is time; about 9 hours would not be too much. As with the soups, the cooked ham hock is de-constructed and the meat is returned to the greens.

And for those of you who admire French cooking, don't forget that the ham hock has a welcome place in a big batch of choucroute garni, the iconic Alsatian version of sauerkraut and pork. For this dish you may want to have two or three hocks that have been cooked and skinned, but otherwise left intact with the meat falling off the bone.

One last bit of good news about ham hocks. You can buy several pair and keep them in the freezer for months. Just pull them out whenever you feel the need for a kettle of comfort.

Here are a few great recipes that call for ham hocks.

Ham hocks and baked beans: https://www.food.com/recipe/ham-hocks-and-beans-51459

The US Senate version of Capitol Hill Bean Soup:

Senate Bean Soup

Braised Collard Greens with Ham Hocks: https://www.seriouseats.com/collard-greens-ham-hocks-recipe

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.