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Recipes and Stories

16 June 2018: Summer Comfort Food and Ham Salad

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad slathered thickly onto hearty bread

I’ve never been very interested in clever cooking. And the older I get, the less interested in it I become. I’m not talking about being genuinely and intelligently creative or inventive in the kitchen, but about the kind of cooking that’s more about being clever for the sake of novelty, and all too often at the expense of flavor.

If, when one sits down at the table, one is obliged to be cerebral and analytical about what’s in one’s mouth, or wade through a thicket of startling and even conflicting aromas and flavors that crowd one another out, quite frankly it gets completely in the way of any real pleasure.

In short, if I have to think over what’s in my mouth before I can decide whether I like it, in my opinion, the cook has failed at his job. But there are people who enjoy that kind of thing, who love being startled every time they sit down to a meal, and they’re welcome to it.

What my aging palate looks for in my own cooking and that from a public kitchen is flavors that reassure and comfort. If on occasion that comfort comes with a little surprise, that’s fine, but for me the flavor is more important than gastronomical calisthenics.

I’m content to let seasonality provide enough variety to keep my palate from being bored at the table. And now that summer is upon us, one of the deeply comforting seasonal things I have been craving is a good old-fashioned ham salad, the kind that’s so easy to eat spread between two slices of hearty bread or presented deliciously nestled in a hollowed-out ripe tomato.

That’s my idea of really intelligent cooking: nothing more than good ham treated with care and respect and paired with just enough finely minced shallot, celery, and sweet pickle to bring up its flavor and keep my palate engaged from the first to the last. Maybe it isn’t clever, but for my money, it’s awfully smart.

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad

This has traditionally been used as a spread for both hearty lunch-box and dainty tea sandwiches. It was also served as a dainty luncheon dish scooped into capped and hollowed-out ripe tomatoes or cupped lettuce leaves. Especially when it’s served in that way, some traditional cooks add chopped hard-cooked eggs. Allow 2 large ones, peeled and chopped fine.

It also makes a lovely canapé spread for soft bread rounds, crostini, or crackers. Garnish it with capers, sprigs of dill, parsley, or thinly sliced sweet cornichon pickles. I just mound it up in a bowl, surround it with toast rounds or crackers, and let my company do the work.

Makes about 3-3½ cups, serving 6-8

1 pound (3 cups when trimmed and large-diced) cooked lean ham
½ cup finely chopped celery
½ cup finely minced shallot or red onion or ½ cup finely chopped scallions
About ¼ to 1/3 cup (to taste) fine-chopped bread and butter or other sweet pickles, or sweet pickle relish
1 tablespoon Dijon or deli-style mustard
About ¾ cup mayonnaise
Ground cayenne

1. Trim the ham of any fat or tough connective tissue and cut it into ½-inch dice. Put it through a meat grinder or put it into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it’s coarsely but evenly chopped. If you want it to be more of a cocktail spread, keep pulsing until it’s finely chopped.

2. Turn the ham into a mixing bowl and mix in the celery, onion, pickles or relish, and mustard. Fold in mayonnaise until the salad is a nice spreading consistency and season with a pinch of cayenne. Taste and adjust the cayenne and add more pickle, if needed. Cover and refrigerate until needed. It’ll keep, well-covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days or even a bit longer.

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