Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas, unlike Thanksgiving, has no prescribed main course. A tenderloin or standing beef roast, a leg of lamb, a pork loin or a turkey all make fine entrees, but one of the most popular choices for many is baked ham.

It’s easy to see why. A ham serves a crowd handily, it’s almost foolproof to prepare, it tastes good served warm or at room temperature, and there’s no sticker shock when you get to the register. Guess what will be the main attraction at my house Dec. 25?

For several weeks, I tested a recipe for cranberry-glazed baked ham and finally worked out all the details. The secret to the great taste and distinctive presentation of this main course is a simple cranberry glaze and garnish. Fresh and dried cranberries are cooked with sugar, spices and a touch of vinegar until the mixture has thickened slightly. Orange zest is stirred in, and then the berries are strained and saved for the garnish, and the liquid is used as a glaze for the ham.

This recipe works particularly well with a semiboneless cut. After scoring the top and dotting it with whole cloves, I bake the ham for about an hour, then brush it often with cranberry glaze for the remainder of the baking time. When done, the pork is a glossy mahogany brown tinted with crimson on the outside and a rich rosy hue beneath. For serving, I spoon the cooked cranberries atop orange slices, arrange them around the meat, then add some bouquets of watercress.

The ham would be delicious accompanied by a baked potato gratin (white or sweet potatoes would be equally tempting), fresh green beans tossed in butter and sprinkled with toasted nuts, and with glazed carrots. Whatever you serve it with, this special ham is certain to make a striking centerpiece for a Christmas menu.



Cranberry-glazed baked ham

Makes 8 servings.

CRANBERRY GLAZE AND GARNISH:

1 cup water

1 cup white granulated sugar

2 cups fresh cranberries

1/2 cup dried cranberries

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 whole cinnamon stick, broken in half

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

HAM:

A 7- to 7 1/2-pound fully cooked semiboneless ham (from the shank or butt end)

Whole cloves (45 to 50, about 2 teaspoons) for studding the ham

One large thick-skinned orange cut into 8 thin rounds

1 bunch watercress, cleaned and dried

For cranberry glaze and garnish, combine water and white sugar in a medium, heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil without stirring. Stir in fresh and dried cranberries, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger and cinnamon. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium, and cook 5 minutes until mixture thickens slightly.

Remove from heat and stir in orange zest. With tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard cinnamon stick halves. Set a large sieve or strainer over a mixing bowl and strain the solid cranberry mixture from the liquids. Reserve cranberries for the garnish.

Whisk mustard into strained cranberry liquid, which will be used as a glaze and will thicken slightly as it cools. (Both cranberry garnish and glaze can be prepared 2 days ahead; cover separately and bring to room temperature before using.)

Arrange a rack at lower third of oven and heat oven to 325 degrees.

Trim any tough rind and fat from upper side of ham, leaving 1/4-inch-thick layer of fat. Using a sharp knife, score fat in a 1-inch wide diamond pattern and press a clove in the center of each diamond. Set ham in a roasting pan and bake 1 hour. Then brush top and sides of ham generously with some of the glaze.

Continue to bake until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the ham registers 140 degrees, brushing ham with glaze every 15 minutes and tenting it with foil if browning too quickly, about 1 hour or longer. (Baking time can vary, so check often to determine when the desired temperature has been reached.)

Remove ham and let stand 15 minutes. Transfer to platter and garnish with orange slices mounded with cooked cranberries and bouquets of watercress. Serve any remaining glaze as a sauce.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “The Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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