Tag Archives: ham

Pork Ham Steaks

I have seen so many hogs butchered in my career that I can not even begin to count them. And the same thing always seems to happen with the ham; it is either cured into a country ham, ground for charcuterie, or ground for some sort of cooking. It has always bothered me that no one uses these beautifully large muscles for nothing else. I guess I can’t say never with any certainty in that no idea in the culinary world seems to be original. It is just my experience that other cuts of the pig seem to get more attention and ideas behind them. I have always wanted something more to do with the rear leg of the pig. I mean why not? We are always seeing the “Denver Leg” cut of venison or antelope which is the exact same part of the animal, just a different animal.

So I decided with this last hog we got I was going to change the norm for my butchering world. I took one of the hind legs and deconstructed it. What I was left with was six muscles that would yield good portioned steaks, lots of meat for grinding, a good amount of fat for rendering, and great skin for pork rinds. I removed all of the silver skin, fat, and random bits from each muscle so they where beautifully lean. I say lean but as you can see from the picture there is a great deal of marbling still present. I then used a jaccard meat tenderizer on each of the portioned steaks. I did this for two reasons. The first being the obvious, hind leg meat is notorious for being a tough cut (just one of the many reasons they are so commonly NOT used as steaks), and the second is that in all the “Denver Leg” venison steaks, even from the top producers I have used, I saw the marks of a jaccard.

Once prepped I heavily seasoned the steaks with salt and a twist or two of black pepper. I have to take a second here and explain why I say “heavily” when I refer to seasoning the steaks with salt. It has been my experience in sous vide cooking that if the protein, in particular pork, is not seasoned well then the end result is a bland taste. I can only equate this to the fact that many times pork is cooked with some time of liquid. Either stock, fat or some sort, or both are used in the sous vide bags with the pork. If this liquid is not seasoned, which neither a stock nor fat should be, then the liquid would of course absorb a degree of the salt thus reducing the amount the actual protein can absorb. I bagged the steaks with 4 ounces of pork stock (made from the bones of the same pig), a good slug of olive oil, and 1/2 cup of lard (rendered from the fat of the same pig). I also added 1 clove of garlic, 12 white peppercorns, and several sprigs of thyme. I cooked the steaks at 56.5 Celsius for 6 hours.

To finish the steaks I seared them in a mix of lard and canola oil to caramelize the outside and heat the steak through. I will admit the first one got away from me and cooked a little longer than I wanted and ended up a solid medium well when finished. I nailed the second at a perfect medium. To my amazement both were fantastic. Tender, juicy, and loaded with wonderful porky flavor. And while the medium steak was obviously my favorite I would not have turned away the over cooked medium well by any means. Finished with a nice bourbon smoked sea salt and a new dish was formed. Now what to serve them with?

–matt bolus


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Filed under Butcher, Buthering, Cooking, Fat, Flavor, Ideas, Matt Bolus, pork, Pork Fat, Sous Vide

Benton’s Berkshire Country Ham

Two slices of Benton\'s Berkshire hamI woke up this morning with a desire for a country ham breakfast (I know this sounds crazy, I mean how much pork can one person consume, a lot). So I broke into the fridge and found a pack of Benton’s Berkshire country ham. I looked back at my notes from visiting Allan and quickly made a pot of coffee. While waiting for the pot of joe to brew I marveled in the perfection that sat in front of me. Simply sliced would have been wonderful and more than anyone else may have needed. I remembered Allan telling me how hard it was, but that he was finding pasture raised organic Berkshire hogs to make many of his hams from. He also added a statement as to how much it was costing him and the fact that he charges no more for the Berkshire hams than he does from his regular hams. This is not to say that his regular hams are to be avoided, those are produced from the best pasture raised hogs of various breeds that he can find, and they are fantastic. The Berkshire hams though, in my opinion, are something to covet, and a way for everyone to experience what you will pay a high price for in most places for the same price as a regular country ham. Once the coffee was finished brewing I quickly poured myself a cup (Kelly was not up yet before you get mad) and then poured roughly 1/3 cup into a large skillet. Then I added two tablespoons of brown sugar (according to the advice Allan gave me) to the pan, turned the stove onto medium high heat and allowed the sugar to completely dissolve. Then I added the ham. Two beautiful pieces of ham, laying opposite ways of each other, filled the house with the wonderful aroma that only country ham cooking in freshly brewed coffee can (Kelly quickly got out of bed). When the ham was done cooking I quickly wrapped it in aluminum foil and added a tablespoon of floor to the liquid. Stirring with vigor I watched as this deeply flavored liquid thickened into an unbelievably rich red eye gravy. Sauteing some eggs and toasting bread at the same time we could hardly wait. Breakfast of Benton’s ham, eggs, and toast with apricot jelly was served and devoured quickly. So quickly in fact that the cup of coffee I had poured for myself turned cold before I even touched it. Oh well, it was worth it.

–matt bolus

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Filed under Cooking, Flavor, Ideas, Matt Bolus, Uncategorized

Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams

Benton\'s road sign

My trip this past weekend took me to Knoxville, Tennessee.  Kelly and I drove up there to surprise my father for Father’s Day.  While up there I decided that I could not pass up the chance to visit Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams.  I used to pass by their building on highway 411 on a regular basis on my way out to go trout fishing.  Foolishly, my fishing partner and I used to pass it up for lunch, instead choosing the A&W drive in just down the road.  While also a true piece of Americana, the drive in is nothing compared to Benton’s. 

Monday was the day of my scheduled visit and the anticipation of the trip was enough to get me out of bed earlier than normal.  I wanted to arrive before everyone else and be able to see the whole operation.  Out in Madisonville, Tennessee Benton’s store is located in what is commonly referred to as God’s country.  I would have to agree with this as the drive was one of the most beautiful, quiet, and peaceful drives I have had in a long time.  The rolling hills and untouched country side makes me miss living there.  And if you agree that this is God’s country then Allan Benton (the owner) must be an angel that allows all of his followers a small taste of heaven in his hams, and this was definitely my pilgrimage.

The company has been in operation since 1947 with Allan taking over in the in 1973.  Still a small operation, a “Hillbilly” operation according to Allan, with five employees plus Allan, they crank out hundreds of hams a month.  Sourcing several different breeds Allan uses nothing but the best, including certified organic Berkshire hogs like the ones served in the best fine dining restaurants.  You will never find a ham that came from a pig raised in a stock house like those of other ham makers.  Being a small business owner himself (though growing) Allan likes to help support small farmers as much as possible.

As you arrive at the store you cannot believe that something so good comes from something so small.  Simplicity in mind and practice, Benton’s store front is nothing that would stand out, but certainly something you should always remember.  Once inside you are quickly taken back in time to when Allan first started in the business.  In fact the only thing Allan has changed was the type of sugar used, the original company used white sugar, and since his family had always used brown sugar instead of white Allan decided to go with that.  The smell is that of an old farm house where food is always cooking and being served.  Aging hamsSmoke stained racks hold hundreds of smoked pork bellies, hams, jowls, and sausages all tagged with a starting date and name if the ham or bacon has been custom made for someone.  Bacon ready to be smoked.In the next room employees (one or two of the five) are cutting hams or bacon for packaging.  Then you go in back and the fun really begins.  The other three or four employees are constantly moving hams from the curing room to the aging room or smoke house, from the aging room to the cutting and packaging room, or from the smoke house to the center of the room allowing them to cool off before they go back into the aging room where they gently give off the aroma of ham heaven.  Pork is everywhere in every state of curing, different sizes, cuts, and all looking wonderful.  For a pork fan like me this was an amazing site and I honestly did not want to leave. Hams aging for 12 to 18 months Curing pork bellies for baconAt this time had Allan offered me a job I probably would have taken it, and I hadn’t even seen the smokehouse.

 Just off the main structure is the smoke house.  Inside the doors is where perfection in flavor is started.  Years of use have left the walls and ceiling completely covered in black.  I can only imagine that this leads to added flavor as a cask aging balsamic vinegar does.  I was told that balsamic makers don’t simply build new barrels to age their vinegar; they actually build a new barrel around the existing barrel in use.  This practice has been done forever as far as I know allowing each batch of vinegar to benefit from every previous batch (now days this can mean hundreds of years of vinegar production and flavor).  Going into the smoke house.As each batch of ham, bacon, or sausage is smoked in Benton’s smoke house, flavor is added not only from the hickory and apple wood being burned for their wonderful smoke but also from the years and years of smoking that came before.  This type of age flavor cannot be replicated in any way that I know of and is undoubtedly an intricate part of what makes Benton’s hams so beautiful.

As I toured the small building, being guided along by Allan or one of his employees, I realized that everyone there shared a passion for pork.  Curing prosciutto.Everyone employed at Benton’s not only loves hams and bacon and sausage, but they love working there.  You can see it in their motions, you can feel it in the smile on their face, and you can hear it when they invite you to come see the smoke house or even help them hang a rack of pork belly.  Everyone I talked to (I know it was only five) all had an attitude that is rarely seen at a place of employment.  This, in my opinion, helps create the flavor and experience of Benton’s products.  Curing country hams.When people love what they do and where they work they produce better end results.  When employees want to come to work, instead of having to go to work, the customer can experience their happiness.  Whether it is in a restaurant, bank, or any other service based business, happy employees’ lead to better business. 

So after the tour Allan graciously loaded me up with more samples than I knew what to do with.  I had planned on purchasing several items to try out for the new menu.  Instead he and I talked through some ideas and Allan decided on what I needed to take home to try.  I have to mention that I tried numerous times to purchase too much.  Each time Allan quietly said, “let’s try this and see what you think first, then we can move forward”. What Allan gave me. Allan Benton is a true gentleman.  He focuses on the greater good for both involved not just on the sale.  He is the type of person you want to be associated with, and do business with because you can trust him and you know that in the end both of you will be happy.  Allan is honest and passionate, hard working and dedicated to keeping his business pure, doing only what he believes is the right thing to do.

Returning home I had so many ideas it was hard to think, and the peaceful drive I experienced going out there passed much too quickly returning.   Allan had given me a sample of his regular country ham, Berkshire country ham, prosciutto, fresh sausage, and smoked bacon.  My first thought was on lunch.  I had left the house early without breakfast and then had to endure so much time smelling all those wonderful scents that I was starving.  Carrying on a Kentucky tradition (I know I was in Tennessee, but my family is from Kentucky) I decided to serve Benedictine, bacon, and tomato sandwiches.  Crispy Benton\'s bacon.Slowly cooking the bacon, as I know you should, only prolonged the hunger.  I have found though, the best part of being the chef is you get to “taste” what you are cooking as you cook it.  I mean you want to make sure the flavors are perfect don’t you?  With the toast made, the heirloom tomatoes sliced, and the bacon crisp it was time to try Allan Benton’s bacon for the first time.  It was actually like trying bacon itself for the first time.  Benedictine, bacon, and tomato sandwich.The flavor and crispiness were better than any other bacon I had ever eaten, and I promise you I have eaten a lot of it.  The smokiness was perfect, enough to enjoy without over powering everything else.  The cure on the bacon created a saltiness that perfectly seasoned everything else on the sandwich with no additional seasoning needed, yet at the same time you could eat the bacon on its own and it was not too salty;  just another example of Allan and his quest for perfection.

That night I had already planned a party that involved a Mexican style pork butt that I cooked after reading the book “Pig Perfect” by Peter Kaminsky.  The funny thing is Allan Benton had not only read the book twice, from cover to cover as he told me, he had also sat on a board of review in New York City with Mr. Kaminsky about pork.  I did though, throw in a starter of Benton’s prosciutto and melon with dressed baby arugula so that all of those who attended could experience a little of what I did that morning.  The next morning was a perfect opportunity to show case Allan’s fresh country sausage.  Outstanding in all aspects is all I can say.  I spent many a summers on my grandfather’s farm, and this is the only way I can describe it.  For all of those who have seen the Oscar winning Pixar movie “Ratatouille” you will remember when the evil food critic Anton Ego is taken back to his childhood days after the first bite of ratatouille.  I had the same experience here.  I, of course, had to smell the sausage before cooking.  My first reaction, which was backed up by my mother, was it smelled of my grandfather’s farm house.  After cooking I was certain this was true.  What I was not expecting was my first bite; instant time travel back to my grandfather’s table eating a breakfast that consisted of sausage, bacon, two eggs (over easy), toast, and coffee every morning after going out to count the cows.  I sat for a second after the first bite simply enjoying the memory, one I had not had in many years, one that made me truly want to be on the farm again.

Allan Benton and his Smoky Mountain Country Hams are something I truly believe all should experience.  His hard work and experience you can expect to find showcased at Red Sky.  I will undoubtedly serve his prosciutto as a starter just as I did at the dinner party.  And at the very least serve his smoked hams at brunch for all to savor.  Red Sky fortunately has many followers (which I hope we keep) from all walks of life and all parts of the globe.  My only hope in serving this tremendous product is that I as a chef can do it justice in all of its perfection. 

–matt bolus




Filed under Cooking, Flavor, Ideas, Restaurant, Uncategorized