Friday March 1, 2013

"Wow! We never get to have this much ham!"

This is the comment of my 13-year-old, who is apparently thrilled at dinner dishes that have been featuring this favorite meat. Little does she know, I am using my ability to stretch a ham steak to its fullest, ekeing as many meals out of it as possible this week.

Transitions are hard, and the slow, slushy, dragged-out transition from winter to spring is one of my hardest. I find myself at a loss for what to cook, finding little to inspire me and dreaming only of those foods that have not yet come into season. So instead, I procrastinate, waiting until the last possible moment to even consider dinner, a bad habit that makes everyone edgy at a time of day when we’re already tired and ready for some comfort. When pasta seems to be coming out of everyone’s ears, I know that I have to change gears. But how?

Digging through the chest freezer I find a ham steak, inflexible, crunching with ice and looking at me dolefully with its one oval bone that couldn’t represent an eye any better if it tried. I have no idea how long it has been in there and I feel as though I have somehow neglected the most basic duties of food storage. But in my desperate state this does not deter me - I bring it upstairs and pop it in the refrigerator to thaw, sure that inspiration will strikeĊ somehow.

Ham is a favorite at our house. We don’t have it often, it seems to be reserved for those big holidays when we indulge in its salty-sweet flavor and meaty texture. Then there are the leftovers that we enjoy in an almost obscene way that never last quite long enough. Marielle’s happiness at eating ham in the end of February with no apparent reason doesn’t surprise me much.

This one ham steak really worked for us this week. As it had been previously frozen, we needed to eat it all in a timely manner. Throwing caution to the wind, I cut about a third of it into cubes and using a sheet of puff pastry leftover from making holiday cheese tarts, I followed my friend Jan’s advice from years ago for putting together a quick and easy dinner. Rolling the thawed pastry out, I cut the sheet into four rectangles, then divided the ham cubes, a grating of cheddar cheese and a smear of mustard on each. Folding half of the dough over the pile of goodies, I sealed the edges with a bit of water and baked them until golden brown and puffy in a 400 degree oven, or about 20 minutes. Served with broccoli, Margot, our 8-year-old, was ready to have them the next night and may even place them on her birthday dinner menu in April (yes, we are planning this far ahead). Very rich and crumbly, these will be a special treat, but as special treats go, it was an easy one!

The next night we were very pressed for time - more procrastination. I diced half of the remaining ham and after sautéing half a sliced onion, a couple mushrooms and a bit of roasted red pepper, I folded it into a huge pan of scrambled eggs. With bread and a salad, this made a great speedy supper that was also pleasantly comforting.

For the last remaining bit of ham - so many choices! Quickly disqualifying anything that seems to complicated, I could just fry it up in a pan and serve with pancakes and fruit for a kid-friendly ‘backwards day’ breakfast-for-dinner. Or I could dice it and go an entirely different direction by making a fried rice type dish full of peas, green onions and some carrot with some soy and fried egg. Quiche also crossed my mind, full of onions, cheese and maybe some more of those roasted red peppers. But maybe I should take a chance and make something a bit more daring. I haven’t ever made croquettes, per se, but I see diced ham as being the perfect thing to mix with a bit of mashed potato, some cabbage, green onion and seasoning, then roll in breadcrumbs to be pan fried until crisp ("croquer" means "to crunch" in French). But then again, maybe some of Grandma’s good ol’ ham salad full of pickles and a dollop of mayo would be just perfect!

Once again I find the challenge of using an ingredient both frugally and creatively overcoming my lethargy in the kitchen. I’ll still be glad when this seasonal transition is over and I can say that spring has sprung.  But for now, I will continue to try and rely on my enjoyment of a good cooking challenge, even when I’m sure that I can’t possibly pull another meal together. Somehow I do, and it’s very satisfying to prove to myself that I’ve managed it again.