This is proper frugal food. A whole ham hock costs me £1.75 – and that’s a posh organic one from my local farmer’s market – and it’s easily made to stretch to three meals. It baffles me why this isn’t a more widely used joint of meat. Granted, the initial cooking takes some time but you’re not standing at the stove slaving away over it, it just bubbles away on its own for a few hours. If I wasn’t so paranoid about accidentally burning down my flat, I’d put this on in the morning, go out and do other things, and then come back and it would be ready. As it is, it’s a pleasant Sunday night ritual to cook a ham hock ready for the week.
You also end up with a great big ham bone. As tempting as it is to give this to a dog, a vet friend of mine told me off for doing this because the bone will have softened in the cooking and splinters easily. So. Don’t do that.
Ingredients for Stock
A ham hock
1 onion, red or white
6 or so peppercorns
6 or so juniper berries if you have them
A couple of bay leaves
A bouquet garni if you have it
Celery, leeks, whatever veg you have in except for brassicas like cabbage, broccoli or spouts. They can rather overpower the stock.
No salt – the ham is salty enough itself.
You don’t need to peal anything, just wash the veg, cut the bulkier items in half and then bung all the ingredients in a large pan. Pour in cold water slowly. The reason you do it slowly is that you don’t want to disturb the fat on the ham too much – if the fat gets jostled and dislodged, bits of it will float around in the water and this is what makes stock cloudy and greasy. The water should just cover the ingredients.
Put it on a low to medium heat on the hob (stovetop). The aim is for the fat and scum to rise to the surface as intact as possible so you can skim it off easily and the stock stays clear.
Once it’s come to a gentle simmer, skim off any fat and scum that has risen to the surface with a spoon. Turn down the heat even more. You want the barest of simmering going on – the occasional “bloop” from a bubble every few seconds. This is so that the collagen in the meat softens and dissolves, which flavours the stock and means the meat doesn’t dry out.
For the first half an hour or so, check back and skim off any further rubbish that’s risen to the surface. After this time it will probably have all risen. You can do now go off and do your own thing for a few hours. I give it a stir every hour or so to make sure there’s no ingredients poking out of the top of the water and drying up.
The liquid will reduce a bit, which is a good thing. The flavours are getting concentrated. After 4 hours it should be nearly ready. Have a taste. If it’s full of flavour, it’s ready.
Strain the stock through a fine mesh colander into a suitable container and leave it to cool. You now have stock:
Once the ham has cooled, tear it off the bone and either eat straight away or put it in the fridge for later. Chuck the veg and fat away, it’s no use to anyone but the pigs now.*
You can use the stock straight away but it might be a bit greasy. Instead, let it cool and then leave it in the fridge overnight. In the morning there will be a layer of fat on the top which you can skim off. The stock will probably be jellified, which is a great sign because it means you got the temperature right and the gelatin from the bones has leached out and the stock will be really full of flavour. It’ll become liquid again when you heat it up.
The stock is now ready for use. Tomorrow’s post will be a selection of recipes for the ham and stock.
*Don’t feed pigs with it. That would be wrong.