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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a quarter million people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Restaurant Review: Amalfi's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, Mt. Pleasant, SC

A Hidden Gem Worth Finding

Hidden away in a shopping center in Mt. Pleasant, SC is a gem of an Italian restaurant: Amalfi's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria.

When I say “hidden away,” I mean it. Even with electronic guidance, when the GPS announces “the destination is on your right,” you look and go, “Okay. Where?” Then you spend several minutes negotiating the maze of Belle Hall Shopping Center's shops before you spot the Amalfi's sign over the door of a small space in the back.

Unlike the chain places with Italian-sounding names, Amalfi's is an Italian restaurant actually owned and operated by Italians. One of my standard gambits in determining the “Italian-ness” of an Italian restaurant is to simply greet the host or hostess in Italian or to speak Italian when requesting a table. “Una tavola per due, per favore.” If that gets a blank stare or a nervous smile, I start to look around to make sure I haven't stumbled into an Olive Garden. Well, I did get the nervous smile from the young man at Amalfi's door; a smile that was repeated by the waitress when I greeted her with “buona sera.” But word must have spread that there was an old guy in the place speaking Italian because soon several Italian speakers came out to chat with me and I was quite happy and satisfied with the eatery's authenticity.

One of the Italian speakers was owner Davide Mazzola, who originally opened Amalfi's in downtown Charleston in 2008, but moved to the current spot in Mt. Pleasant in 2011 after a kitchen fire damaged the original location. (There is now a second Amalfi's in James Island, located there to service the original Charleston customer base.) Davide is from Napoli, where his family operates two restaurants. He began his American journey in North Carolina working for his uncle in Greensboro before launching his first Amalfi's in Elkin and following it with one in Wilkesboro. Because he loves being near the ocean, his next choice for expansion was the Charleston area.

In the traditional Italian manner, Amalfi's prides itself on using only the finest ingredients and freshest products available and everything from the sauces to the breads and doughs are fatta in casa, or home made, according to family recipes.

Stepping through the door at Amalfi's transports you to an Italian trattoria. There's nothing fancy, glitzy, or trendy here. In fact, it's a little stark. Lots of wood and warm golden umber with a few splashes of Italian art and bric-a-brac on the walls. There's an immediate intimate vibe and homey feel to the small space, especially to the upstairs area where our party of three was seated on a beautiful mid-April evening.

In truth, this was our second visit to Amalfi's, but writing about our wonderful initial experience was set aside due to a death in my wife's family that occurred around the time of the first visit. So when we found ourselves back in town on business – this time in the company of a coworker with an appreciation for good food – a return to Amalfi's was a foregone conclusion.

Everything was as we remembered it from our first outing. The atmosphere was pleasant and relaxing, the service was friendly and attentive, and the food was semplicemente squisito. (“Simply exquisite,” in case you couldn't figure that one out.)

The deliciously fresh homemade bread arrived first, accompanied by a delectable dipping sauce of oil, herbs, spices, and tangy balsamico. Okay, so it's not traditionally Italian to serve bread before a meal (bread should be served as an accompaniment to the meal, not as a pre-meal course of its own), but it's what Americans have come to expect and I never complain about good bread, regardless of when it's served.

There were several intriguing appetizers on the menu, ranging from an antipasto of thin sliced prosciutto, soppressata, mozzarella di bufula, asiago cheese, kalamata olives, and marinated vegetables to a house specialty called “zucchini alla scapece,” described as being an original from Naopli consisting of fresh sliced zucchini, grilled and topped with balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, and shaved asiago. There were also offerings of arancini, bruschetta, and calamari. We settled on a simple caprese and were not disappointed.

Soups and salads were well represented. My wife chose a thick, rich, flavorful homemade tomato bisque to accompany her entree.

Our guest was agog at the entree choices, which included selections from categories including “Traditional Italian,” “Pollo,” “Vitello,” “Melanzana,” and “Sapori di Mare” as well as “Specialty Entrees,” pizza in both Neapolitan and Sicilian styles, calzone and stromboli, subs, and a children's menu. With all that from which to choose, she ordered baked ziti and a generous garden salad. The “ziti,” which was actually penne, was served in a hearty ricotta and tomato sauce topped with fresh mozzarella and baked to golden perfection. My wife's choice of entree also came from the “traditional” column; she had perfectly tender ravioli stuffed with a savory meat filling and served in Amalfi's signature homemade tomato sauce. Neither lady was able to finish the typical “Italian restaurant” portions, but they made serviceable dents and pronounced both dishes to be delightful.

Having had pasta on my previous visit, I opted for pizza this time, choosing a simple Neapolitan-style cheese pie. Although the crust was a little more American that true Neapolitan, the overall product was delicious and satisfying and the two slices that made it back to the hotel didn't last long once the midnight munchies struck.

Even with tiramisu and my personal favorite, cannoli, on the menu, dessert was out of the question. They'd have had to wheel us down the stairs and out the door on a hand-truck. Maybe next time.

And there will be a next time.

The Mount Pleasant location of Amalfi's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria is in the Belle Hall Shopping Center at 664 Long Point Road. They are open from 11 am to 10 pm Monday through Thursday, from 11 am to 11 pm Friday and Saturday, and from 11 am until 9:30 pm on Sunday. Dress is casual, reservations are not required, and families are welcome. Ample parking is available. Call them at (843) 793-4265 or find them on the web at www.amalfisofmountpleasant.com. Or you can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Law Says Margarine and Butter Are Not The Same

Accept No Substitutes

“Would you like your toast buttered, sir?”
“Yes, please.”

Implicit in that exchange is the fact that I expect my toast to be “buttered” with butter, dammit, not some horrid chemical concoction made up of hydrogenated vegetable oil or worse. But far too many people fail to recognize the difference anymore. Thanks in part to years of idiotic pseudoscience and to generations of ultra-successful marketing, an alarming number of today's consumers make little if any distinction between butter and margarine. To “butter” something has become a verb applied to the liberal application of any butter-like substance to a food. But there are a few old fossils like me who do recognize the difference and at least one who decided to do something about it.

A Worcester, Massachusetts man recently sued doughnut purveyor Dunkin' Donuts for slathering his bagels with margarine rather than butter. Jan Polanik filed a pair of class-action lawsuits against Massachusetts franchise owners of twenty-three stores in Grafton, Leominster, Lowell, Millbury, Shrewsbury, Westborough and Worcester after he said he paid a quarter for butter on his bread and was not told a substitute was used. And he won. Polanik got five hundred bucks as an “incentive award” for representing the class and up to 1,400 other people are entitled to claim up to three free buttered muffins, bagels or other baked goods from the cited stores as compensation for the oversight. Those stores will be required to use only butter — no margarine or butter substitutes — for a period of one year and if they use butter substitutes in the future, their menus will have to explicitly state that fact.

For its part, DD claims that the majority of its restaurants in Massachusetts carry both individual whipped butter packets and a butter-substitute vegetable spread. A few years ago, a Dunkin' spokesperson offered The Boston Globe an explanation for why vegetable spread might be used. “For food safety reasons, we do not allow butter to be stored at room temperature, which is the temperature necessary for butter to be easily spread onto a bagel or pastry.” The spokesperson claimed that the recommended store procedure called for individual whipped butter packets to be served on the side of a bagel or pastry, but not applied. She said, “The vegetable spread is generally used if the employee applies the topping.”

I can buy into that explanation to some extent because after I banned liquid margarine from a restaurant I took over, I was dunned by a health inspector who caught an employee, unaccustomed to the changeover, leaving butter out at room temperature. After I had to toss several pounds of butter – and one employee – it never happened again.

But this kind of thing occurs all the time. You don't think they're buttering your toast with real butter at Waffle House, do you? Waffle House runs on liquid margarine; gallons and gallons of the stuff go into and on everything, including your toast. Let's face it, margarine is cheap and easy to use and most consumers either don't know the difference or they don't care.

They know and they care in Wisconsin. The state that bills itself as “America's Dairyland” is probably the only one that still carries laws on the books specifically restricting and defining the use of butter and margarine. “Oleomargarine Regulations” as outlined in statute 97.18 include subsection 3, which declares: “No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale at retail any oleomargarine or margarine unless: (a) Such oleomargarine or margarine is packaged; (b) The net weight of the contents of any package sold in a retail establishment is one pound; (c) There appears on the label of the package the word “oleomargarine" or “margarine" in type or lettering at least as large as any other type or lettering on the label in a color of print which clearly contrasts with its background, and a full accurate statement of the ingredients contained in the oleomargarine or margarine; and (d) Each part of the contents of the package is contained in a wrapper or separate container which bears the word “oleomargarine" or “margarine" in type or lettering not smaller than 20-point type.”

So I guess nobody will be confused by packaging. “Hmmm....I wonder if this is butter or margarine?”

Subsection 4 states: “The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.”

Clear as a bell. You can't substitute margarine for butter in Wisconsin unless the customer asks for it. Oh, and as an informational aside, the reference to “colored” margarine dates back to the days when the stuff was sold in its natural state – a pasty white. Apparently, nobody wanted to spread a greasy substance that looked like Crisco on their toast, so manufacturers used to include yellow dye packets to make it look more like butter. At one time, the dairy industry pushed back, supporting legislation in several states that would have forced margarine producers to dye their product pink so it couldn't be mistaken or represented as butter, but the Supreme Court eventually intervened and quashed that scheme.

And just in case you might be tempted to foist off margarine on Wisconsin's helpless students, patients, or inmates, subsection 5 of the statute covers that thusly: “The serving of oleomargarine or margarine to students, patients or inmates of any state institutions as a substitute for table butter is prohibited, except that such substitution may be ordered by the institution superintendent when necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate, if directed by the physician in charge of the patient or inmate.”

You catch that? Ya gotta have a prescription for margarine!

Violators “may be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 or imprisoned not more than 3 months or both; and for each subsequent offense may be fined not less than $500 nor more than $1,000 or imprisoned in the county jail not less than 6 months nor more than one year.”

And you can rest assured that while miscreant margarine peddlers are doing time in the county lockup, they'll be eating nothing but good ol' natural Wisconsin butter.

I told you Wisconsin is serious about butter. So serious, in fact, that imported Kerrygold Irish Butter cannot be sold in Wisconsin because it hasn't been graded for quality by state or federal authorities. This has led to bootlegging as scofflaws nip into Illinois and return with carloads of contraband butter, much the same as my dad used to do back in the 1950s when margarine was actually an illegal substance in “Dairyland,” prompting him to take orders from family and friends and venture across the nearby state line on weekends to fill them. (Proving, I guess, that the nut didn't fall far from the tree. My grandfather was busted for violating the Volstead Act back in 1921. Oh, the shame!)

In spite of my father's nefarious hobby, I have had a lifelong love affair with butter. Like Mr. Polanik, I accept no substitutes. I have visited most of the municipalities he's suing and although my dyed-in-the-wool Krispy Kreme-born-and-bred wife would never allow me to darken the door of a Dunkin' Donuts shop unless it were the last possible resort, I would definitely be among the customers demanding my pound of flesh – or butter – from his legal action. Don't sell me something “buttered” with margarine. It does make a difference to some of us and now the law has recognized that difference.

My wife, raised far from “America's Dairyland” in “The Heart of Dixie” often chides me for making a fuss in restaurants that bring me little bowls full of little packets of plastic butter masquerading as the real thing. And despite my best efforts, I have my share of friends and relatives who are willing to clog their arteries with trans-fats in order to save a dime. A few among them are not only parsimonious, they also lack taste buds. I have a friend who swears he can't tell the difference and an in-law who wounds and offends me by referring to my beloved butter as “crap.” Which only goes to prove that people who have been inured to and inundated with cheap substitutes all their lives wind up not knowing their culinary asses from holes in the ground.

“I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.” Yeah? Well I can. “Country Crock?” It's a crock, alright. “Everything's Better With Blue Bonnet On It?” Not on your tintype, tootsie. “Promise” wants you to “Love Your Heart.” Okay, so don't eat “Promise.” “Fleischmann's” exhorts you to “Eat Well, Live Well, Be Well.” Great advice. What's it got to do with “Fleischmann's?” Remember “Chiffon?” “It's not nice to fool Mother Nature?” Well, I assure you, Mother Nature is not that easily fooled and neither am I. How about these Top Ten New Margarine Slogans from a 1994 Late Night With David Letterman?

10. I can't believe it's not healthy.
9. Little pats of poison
8.You can't spell margarine without angina.
7. Pure chemical satisfaction!
6. Thought you were healthy? Well guess again Pepe!
5. For external use only
4. Which are you gonna believe – boring laboratory studies, or cool TV commercials?
3. Give us a week, and we'll shut off your heart.
2. Elvis ate it, why don't you?
1. Mmm, mmm, dead!

If margarine is so all-fired marvelous and better than butter, then why does margarine always claim to “taste like butter” while I've yet to hear butter claim to “taste like margarine?”

Hooray for Jan Polanik, my butter buddy and great hero of the cause. You know, people in the Midwest have butter sculpting contests at state fairs and such. Out in Iowa, they've done Elvis and John Wayne in butter. How about somebody sculpting Jan Polanik? He certainly deserves the honor. And maybe save a few pats for the judge who ruled in his favor.

Richard Nixon probably knew something about butter. Well.......Butterfield, anyway. (Alexander Butterfield was the guy who revealed the existence of the White House taping system in 1973.) So, in my best Nixon voice, let me make one thing perfectly clear: butter is butter and margarine......is not.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bacon Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

A Great Way To (Literally) Save Your Bacon

Anybody who's known me more than five minutes knows I love bacon. Even if you don't know me, I guess reading my descriptions of “porky ambrosia” would probably give you a clue. My wife and I wear our “Benton's Bacon” t-shirts to bacon festivals and we discuss bacon in the same way some people talk about wine. We're pretty much fanatics on the subject. That's not to say I eat bacon every day. Actually, I only indulge my passion for my favorite food once or maybe twice a week. And that brings me to the topic at hand: bacon is a terrible thing to waste.

At four, five, six or more dollars per pound, bacon is one of life's pricier indulgences. Far too pricey to watch it languish in the back of the refrigerator. Now, maybe if you've got a big family, “languishing” doesn't really enter the picture. But if you're just cooking for yourself or one or two others, it's often a different story. How many times have you opened a package of bacon, cooked what you needed, and put the rest back in the refrigerator, only to have it spoil before you could use it up?

Because it's a cured product, bacon lasts a lot longer than other meats. But it will eventually go bad and bad bacon is not a pretty thing. But it is pretty easy to spot. Remember that nice pink-to-red color it had when you first opened the package? If it's now more of a brown-to-gray hue, it's gone 'round the bend. Bad bacon will also be slippery, waxy, or maybe even a little sticky to the touch. Really bad bacon will have a bit of a greenish cast. And it will smell “off.” Good bacon will smell like...well....good bacon. If it has a sour or rancid smell, it's too late.

The FDA will tell you you've got seven days to polish off that open package of bacon stashed in the meat drawer. You might be able to stretch that a day or two, depending upon the bacon and the way it's cured. Different cures will produce different shelf lives. But regardless, after about a week, watch carefully for the aforementioned warning signs. Or, you can do what I do: freeze it.

Again, the FDA says one month in the freezer. And again I say that depends on how you freeze it. I wouldn't go hog wild – pardon the pun – and try to keep it frozen for a year, but with proper freezing techniques, you can probably get at least a month out of it. Not that I've ever had bacon last for more than a month, so it's hard for me to say. But err on the side of safety; if you get a really great deal on some bacon, resist the urge to buy twenty pounds with the idea that it'll keep for months in the freezer. It won't.

I'm picky about my bacon. When I can get it, I buy quality artisinal bacon like Benton's. Next on my favorites list is bacon from a butcher shop or the meat department at places like Fresh Market or Whole Foods. When I do buy supermarket bacon, it's usually something higher-end like Wright's. I avoid cheap, fatty, flavorless bacon like the plague. I buy Benton's five pounds at a time. With other bacons I buy a pound or two, depending on how much I need. But although I'm a firm believer in freezing bacon to preserve freshness, I don't just toss a whole package of bacon right out of the grocery bag into the freezer. Why? Well, to begin with, I'd have to thaw the whole package in order to use it, which would put me right back at square one. And the original package is intended to preserve freshness for a few days in the refrigerator. It's not designed for long-term freezing. So first things first; ditch the wrapper.

There are two easy, efficient ways to store bacon in the freezer; flat or rolled up. I prefer to roll mine, but the flat method is good, too. As long as you execute either method the right way.

If you go flat, there are two ways to proceed. You can portion the bacon out by separating the package into quarters or halves or whatever you prefer. Wrap the portions tightly in plastic wrap and then place the wrapped portions in a plastic zip-top freezer storage bag. Fold and squeeze the bag until you've got all the air out of it and then zip it closed – almost. Leave enough room to slip a straw into one corner. Then suck out the remaining air and quickly seal the package. Or you can use a vacuum sealer, but it's not nearly as much fun. Some folks wrap the plastic-wrapped portions in foil before putting them in the freezer bag. I don't, but you can.

Another flat storage technique involves separating the package into individual slices and portioning it with strips of wax paper between the separate pieces. Then you wrap and bag as with the other method.

My favorite way to freeze bacon goes like this: I open the market wrapping and take the first slice of bacon in hand. Starting at one end, I just roll it up. It doesn't have to be a super tight roll, just make a little cylinder. Said roll then goes into a quart-size zip-top freezer bag, tucked down in a corner. I roll up another slice and place it in the bag next to the first one. Try to keep a little separation so the rolls don't freeze together. Proceed in this manner until you fill up the quart-size bag. You should be able to pack in three rows of four slices. Press and/or suck all the air out of the bag and seal it. Then place the quart-size freezer bag in a gallon-size freezer bag and start the process over again. I usually buy two pounds of bacon and I generally employ two or three quart-size bags. Once all the small bags are in place, seal the big one and toss it in the freezer.

Whether you choose flat storage or rolled, make sure you label the packages. You don't necessarily have to write “bacon” on the label – you can pretty much figure that one out – but do make sure to date the package. Time flies.

I like the individually wrapped slices rather than the half or quarter-pound packages because I can just open the freezer and grab as many as I need. If I'm making breakfast for myself, I can take out two or three slices. Five or six if I'm cooking for two. And if I just need one slice to crumble up on a baked potato, I can just get one slice. If you're really organized and efficient, you can transfer the frozen slices to the refrigerator a few hours before you're ready to cook them. Or if you're like me, a few seconds of the microwave's “defrost” setting gets the job done on the spur of the moment.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of getting all the air out of the package. Ice crystals and freezer burn are not good eats and that's what you'll get if you don't express all the air from the package before you freeze it. This includes getting the air out every time you open the bag to select a slice or two. Squeeze the air out before you reseal the bag. Otherwise, why bother? You'll just wind up with spoilage of a different sort.

When it comes to my favorite meat product, I would much rather have it go to waist than to have it go to waste. So, to literally save your bacon, freeze it. No muss, no fuss, and best of all, no waste.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Preparing Ham For Easter (Or Any Holiday)

Don't Cheap Up On The Star

Photo credit The New York Times
Here comes Peter Cotttontail, hopping down the bunny trail......dragging a ham behind him. At least where the bunny trail crosses the United States. Peter's cousins in other parts of the world are likely to be toting lambs to the Easter feast. But in the US, ham is the holiday protein of choice. Ever wonder why?

Food historians say that eating ham at Easter dates back to around sixth century Germany. Pigs were abundant in Northern Europe and fall was the time for slaughtering them. With no refrigeration or other means of preservation, fresh pork was hung to cure during the long winter months, providing sustenance after other stored meats had been consumed. When spring – and Easter – rolled around, ham was what was left from the fall harvest. European settlers brought pigs with them to the New World, and the Easter ham tradition took root in the US.

Ham comes in many forms, depending on where you're eating it. In Italy, it's delectable prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele. In Spain, it's Jamón Ibérico or Jamón Serrano. Germany is famous for its smoky Schwarzwälder Schinken, or Black Forest ham, while England boasts of Wiltshire cured and York ham.

Here in the US, ham is broadly divided into two types; “country” ham and “city” ham. Country ham is a salt-cured delicacy found primarily in the South. The ham most people buy from the supermarket and cook for their Easter feasts is the more common “city” variety.

City hams are cured in some fashion and are generally sold ready-to-eat. Only a “fresh” ham – a plain hunk of raw pork – has to be completely cooked before you can eat it. And you probably won't find any of those at the local Piggly Wiggly or Kroger. Fresh ham is usually a specialty butcher shop item. Most regular “store-bought” cured hams are pre-cooked and just need to be warmed through. The label will say “cooked” or “fully cooked” or “ready to eat.” And you could actually just saw off a slice and slap it on a plate if you wanted, but most people opt to bake it in the oven. It's really better that way.

City hams are moister than country hams because of the way they are cured. Country ham is dry cured: it's rubbed with salt and seasonings and then hung up to dry in a smoky curing room for anywhere from five or six weeks to five or six months and sometimes longer. This results in a deep, rich flavor and a rather dry texture. Some city hams are dry cured using a mixture of salt and sugar or honey. Most, however, are wet cured: they are injected with a solution called a “brine.” Brines are made up of water and ingredients such as salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, and other flavorings. This method insures a moister meat. It also adds weight to the finished product.

The water content of a ham determines its grade and quality. Product labeled simply “ham” is the highest – and thus most expensive – grade. It's at least 20.5 percent protein. Some water is added, but much less than what is added to lower grades. The next level down is “ham with natural juices,” a product that is 18.5 percent protein and only seven or eight percent water. Still a good choice. Product labeled “ham, water added” is at least 17 percent protein and no more than ten percent added water. “Ham and water product” is the cheapest grade of ham and may contain twenty percent or more water by weight. So check your labels carefully.

As you can see, all ham is not created equal. And when laying out a big Easter (or other holiday) feast, you don't want to cheap up on the star. Buy the best ham you can afford. And buy enough to go around. The uses for leftover ham are practically limitless. Bone-in ham is going to be the most flavorful, although there's nothing wrong with boneless ham. Just steer clear of canned ham, please. I've heard canned ham called the “hot dog of the ham world” because it's made from leftover scraps of other hams that are then packed with gelatin, sealed in cans, and cooked by steam. And consider this: it's shelf-stable for two years. Thank you, no.

A lot of people love their spiral-sliced ham. All cut up and ready to serve with no carving involved. The problem with spiral-sliced ham is it can be tricky to cook. The potential for producing cardboard ham is much greater with the pre-sliced variety than it is with a ham you carve yourself. If you're going to be serving your ham cold, go for the spiral-sliced. But if you plan to cook it – well, warm it; it's already cooked – you're better off with an unsliced ham. Some cooks disagree, and that's fine. I'm just saying you have to be a much more careful cook when dealing with a spiral-sliced ham. Not always good for beginners.

That leads to a discussion of whole or half, butt or shank? Frankly, you're not going to see too many whole hams in a grocery store. A whole ham can weigh upwards of fifteen pounds. Unless you're hosting the Waltons, that's probably more than you'll need. Most supermarket hams are half hams, cut into either the butt half or the shank half. The butt is the upper portion of the leg and the shank is the lower portion. The butt or shank question is largely a matter of preference. The butt end is a bit leaner and usually a bit more expensive. It comes with the aitch-bone, an oddly shaped porcine pelvic bone, intact. Unless you're pretty deft with a knife, you might want to go with the shank end. It contains a higher ratio of fat (which tends to make it moister), and it has only one straight bone to deal with, making it easier to carve.

The USDA says a serving of boneless ham equals 1/4 to 1/3 pound. For bone-in, it's 1/3 to 1/2 pound. By those estimates, you'd need at least a 3.5-pound boneless or a 4.5- to 5-pound bone-in ham in order to feed fourteen people. That's pretty skimpy, if you ask me – or just about anybody else who has ever served ham to a bunch of hungry diners. A better rule of thumb would be if you're buying a boneless ham, allow a minimum of 1/2 pound per person. Up that to 3/4 pound per person if you're buying bone-in because you have to allow for the weight of the bone in your calculation. If you're serving fourteen people, you'll probably be good with a seven or eight-pound ham. If you think people will be really hungry, go with as much as a pound per person. But have those leftover ham recipes handy.

When it comes time to cook – okay, heat up – your ham, low and slow is the way to go. You just need to get the internal temperature of the ham up to 145°. You can actually pull it when the thermometer registers about 135° to 140°; carry-over heat will take it the rest of the way.

Okay, so set your oven to 250° to 300° and let it preheat while you prep the ham. There are all kinds of things you can do to fancy up ham: you can stud it with cloves, you can slather it with mustard, you can glaze it with honey, maple, brown sugar, or combinations thereof. The choice depends on your taste. My son likes his ham absolutely naked; just the natural smoky flavor. I like it that way, too, but I'm also partial to a little sweet glaze. Cloves impart a traditional flavor to ham and some folks love their ham covered in mustard. Whatever. But however you finish your ham, you should start by scoring it.

To score a ham, start from the bottom and work toward the top. Using a sharp paring or utility knife and moving clockwise, make shallow cuts through the skin and the first layers of fat. Don't go too deep. Rotate the ham after each cut so that the scores are no more than two inches across. Once you've gone around clockwise, switch your knife to the other hand and go around again, working counter clockwise. You're trying to achieve an even diamond pattern all over the surface of the ham. You do this for several reasons; one, it looks pretty. It also enables the outer layer of fat to crisp up nicely and it allows any glaze or seasoning you put on top to penetrate into the meat.

Now place the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Not everybody uses a rack, but I do. The size of the pan you’ll need depends on the size of your ham. Usually, a 9 x 3 x 13 works well. Just make sure the ham fits comfortably in the pan without touching the sides. Tent the ham loosely with heavy-duty aluminum foil and pour at least a half-cup of some sort of liquid in the bottom of the pan. Water is fine, but you can use wine or stock or something with a compatible flavor if you so desire. The point of the exercise is to keep the ham moist as it cooks.

I swear by probe thermometers. This is a temperature sensing device that has a probe on the end of a long shaft that is attached to a cable. The cable, in turn, is plugged in to a monitor mounted outside your oven door. You place the probe in the meat, set the time and/or temperature desired on the monitor, and you're done fooling with it. The device will let you know when the meat is done. No constantly opening the oven door, pulling out the rack, uncovering the ham, and puncturing the meat with a big honkin' meat thermometer. If said big honkin' meat thermometer is all you've got, okay. Monitoring the temperature is the important thing. But why not do it the easy way?

Rule of thumb says you should allow a cooking time of about twenty minutes per pound of ham. So a seven-pound ham is gonna take about 140 minutes, or just shy of two-and-a-half hours. A ten-pounder will take a little over three hours. Adjust that upward slightly if you're cooking a bone-in ham.

If you are studding the ham with cloves, do it right after you score it. If you are glazing your ham, though, don't do it right off the bat. Anything you want to pat or brush on should happen later. Wait until twenty or thirty minutes before the end of the cooking time or when the internal temperature reaches about 120°. Then pull the ham out of the oven, uncover it, slather on the glaze and return it, uncovered, to the oven. Crank the heat up to 350° or so for those last few minutes so the glaze can set. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn. Glaze recipes are a dime a dozen. Find one you like. Just don't use the nasty, goopy, prepackaged stuff that sometimes comes with the ham. Trust me on this.

Allow the ham to rest for at least fifteen minutes before you carve it. Don't worry, it'll stay plenty warm. In fact, that's part of the reason for resting. Resting meat after cooking serves two purposes; it allows the carry-over cooking I mentioned before to finish happening and it allows the natural juices in the meat to redistribute. Meat is made up of muscle fibers. When you cook it, those fibers tighten up and squeeze out liquid. Some of that moisture moves to the surface and evaporates. The rest remains in the meat. When the cooking process stops, that remaining moisture redistributes itself back through the meat fibers. If you pull meat straight out of the oven and cut right into it, the liquid will run out and pool on your plate, leaving you with a hunk of dry meat. By letting it rest, the moisture is re-absorbed, ensuring meat that is more tender and juicy.

If all else fails, the good folks at Kentucky Legend Ham operate a porky version of the famous Thanksgiving Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, except it's available year round. Call 1-866-343-5058 anytime between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and ask your hammy questions. Chances are they'll have an answer.

Buona fortuna, buon mangiare e buona Pasqua!