Day 3: Countdown to a Radically Simple Christmas

ham One week to go before Christmas Eve, so it's a good time to start planning your menu. Here is a favorite glazed ham that I make year after year. Served hot on Christmas Eve with mashed rutabagas and caramelized shallots, the morning after I sauté leftover bits with soft-scrambled eggs (delicious with toasted panettone and warm maple syrup). The next day I use the meaty bone to make fragrant lentil soup. Leftovers might also appear in a custardy quiche with sharp cheddar and cumin seed or as an honest ham sandwich, thinly sliced and piled high on rye bread. It's mouthwatering any way you choose. (adapted from Christmas 1-2-3, Stewart,Tabori & Chang).

Glazed Christmas Ham House-filling aromas will trigger mouthwatering anticipation. Its flavors -- salty meat, sharp mustard, sweet crust -- hits your palate like a harmonious chord. Simple cooking techniques keep it moist and succulent.

10-pound smoked ready-to-cook ham, shanks portion 1 cup coarse-grain mustard 1 cup sugar 1-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon garam masala

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place ham in a shallow roasting pan and add 1/4 inch water to pan. Cover ham with foil and bake 2-1/2 hours. Remove ham from the oven and pour off most of the fat. Raise oven temp to 450 degrees. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, remove the skin and most of the fat. Score the remaining fat by cutting diagonal slashes in a diamond pattern. Spread the ham thickly with mustard. Stir together sugar, cinnamon, and garam masala and sprinkle the surface of the ham heavily with the mixture. Return to the oven until sugar melts and hardens, about 25 minutes. It will become a bit crackly. Serves 12

Tastes of the Week

Dec. 5 through Dec. 11th, 2011 Without a doubt, the taste of the week was the hand-sliced "5J Jabugo de Bellota" ham from Spain, meticulously carved by a master ham-slicer, also known as a cortador, at a private tasting last week. There is great romance around the entire production of the beloved 100% pure bred Iberico pig of Spain. Unique in myriad ways, it's worthy of a taste of your own. Read more about it.

I made a cake from Arthur Schwartz's wonderful and encyclopedic book Naples at Table, while I listened to the soundtrack from John Turturro's voluptuous film Passione. Talk about having a good time (by yourself!) The cake is the famous Torta Caprese from the Amalfi region of southern Italy, which we enjoyed this summer during our trip to Ravello, Atrani, and Amalfi. The cake is flourless and based on an abundance of ground almonds. I had a hankering to make it for company this weekend. I added some espresso powder (not an authentic but a still-in-the-vernacular touch) and served it with my own homemade chocolate sorbet. Recipe below. But you might have to browse Arthur's book, or website, for his marvelous torta.

To celebrate the completion of several years of research and a voluminous manuscript about a beloved food personality, we toasted our colleague, the author, with a bottle of 2000 Moet and Chandon champagne. The champagne was a beautiful golden color with yeasty complexity, honeyed tones and bright acidity. If only all champagne tasted this way! A perfect match with still-warm slices of smoked ham meticulously cut by another master ham-slicer (my husband), and my homemade tapenade whose salinity was softened by sweet butter and a touch of brandy. To finish? Deeply flavored espresso and amazing chocolate-covered pecans from Blue Apron gourmet food store in Park Slope -- a gift from our guest.

Another house gift, this time from my brother and his wife, was a box of the best Italian cookies from Giorgio's Bakery in Hoboken. They are famous for their cannoli and pignoli cookies, but I now love their chocolate-enrobed spice cookies (I don't know their official name but they taste like Christmas) and almond-studded quaresimali (biscotti).

There might be nothing more refreshing to drink than freshly-squeezed pink-hued grapefruit juice! At a breakfast I hosted at my home this week for students in my class (Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care), someone brought a jug of the said juice from Lambeth Groves. OMG! The brand is available at the famous Park Slope Co-op and, I imagine, many other places, too. Located in Vero Beach, Florida you can find out more about it by calling 1-800-JUICE-4-U. It's been a long time since I've even thought about grapefruit juice. So glad to get re-acquainted.

And since it's "the season," I enjoyed two wonderful dinners in town last week.  A superlative holiday hosted by Les Dames d'Escoffier at the glamorous Barbetta restaurant in the theatre district. The cannelloni alone were "da morire" (to die for) as was the risotto, braised beef in Barolo and many other specialities from the Piedmont region of Italy.

And there was the Indian feast for four at Tulsi, the Michelin-starred midtown restaurant owned by the great tandoori master and lovable chef, Hemant Mathur. I believe we consumed the entire menu (well, almost!) and savored the tandoori lamb chops, dum biryani -- a "time honored Mughal rice dish, slowly baked in a Handi pot sealed with naan dough" -- made with goat, ginger, cardamom, mace & saffron, lamb nargisi kofta (with cashew nut sauce and cumin-greep pea quinoa), black pepper and coconut shrimp, and masala ceviche (with citrus, green chile, cilantro and gun powder (!)...for starters.

Tomorrow I'll eat yogurt.

My Homemade Chocolate Sorbet You don't need a fancy ice cream maker. I make this in a $30 Donvier (just make sure the canister, and the chocolate mixture, are very cold) before starting to churn. If not eating right away, let the sorbet soften a little before serving.

3/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup dark corn syrup 1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder 4 ounces semisweet chocolate 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder pinch of salt

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, cocoa powder, and 1-1/2 cups water in a large saucepan. Whisk until smooth and bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute, whisking.  Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, the espresso powder, a pinch of salt and 1/4 cup water. Stir until the chocolate melts. Pour the mixture into a blender and process 1 minute, until smooth. Refrigerate the mixture until very cold. Stir briskly and freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions. Serves 6

Ham from Jabugo: $150/lb.

No, that's not a typo and not meant to be $1.50/lb. It is $150 a pound and that's for the shoulder of a very special pig. Its back legs are more: $180 a pound, and they will be available in select areas in the U.S. on Monday. Mustard would be a sacrilege. After all, this is "5J Cinco Jotas" Ibérico ham from Spain.

The back story: More than 20 years ago, I had one of those taste epiphanies, the Proustian kind, where, embedded in your brain is a memory, an aroma, a texture and a story. One that is released upon even a near encounter with that said memory. I was in Barcelona, sitting with my husband and business partner, at a dank wine bar, slipping short, translucent, wafers of cured pork into our mouths and letting them gently rest upon our tongues until they melted away -- not unlike the experience of transcendental sashimi. "What is this?," we asked in our best Catalan, and the answer was simply "Jabugo." Not like anything else we've had, but reminiscent of the experience of sampling a superlative prosciutto or culatello, I always thought Jabugo was the word for ham. That is, until last night.

Jabugo, in fact, is a place -- a town in the southwest of Spain, near Portugal, where the world's most prized 100% pure-bred pigs are raised. These pigs eat acorns, not the shells mind you, but only the "fruit" within, occasionally munch on some verdant grass, and have 5 acres each upon which to saunter and socialize. They know that they are special because their parents were pure bred and so are they. These pigs remain slender and strong, and their ankles look a lot like my mother's, who wore a quad-A shoe with a quintuple heel. Imagine. Thin indeed, and one of the many sublime qualities that define their uniqueness. Twenty years ago I sampled the prized pork when we were working on developing a hotel in Barcelona, called Hotel Arts, that was meant to open in time for the Olympics in 1992. Along with über-designer Adam Tihany we created a tapas bar and other dining facilities. Along with the taste of Jabugo on that trip we sampled green olives the size of golf balls and drank orange juice in wine glasses, served with a spoon, for dessert.

Twenty years later, I found myself remembering that mesmerizing taste, porky perfume, and texture of Jabugo at a small tasting last night at Despaña.  (Despaña is a fabulous food store in Soho specializing in the best products of Spain.) The secret of this particular ham is in the fat, which is alluring sweet and ethereal.  The fat of the pure breed Ibérico de Bellota pig gets infiltrated between its muscles. The flesh is dark red and unlike its porcine cousins, it is cut by a professional cortadores into short, thin, translucent slices:  Another unique quality of the product. Last night we had our very own master cortador whose name is Paco, who cut  translucent slices, discerning the correct ratio of fat and meat, from different areas of the leg, each with its own perfume and texture. Recently Paco spent time with Ferran Adrià who is considered one of the world's best chefs. Adrià hails from San Sebastián, Spain where in his revered (and now sadly closed) El Bulli he melted, or rendered, the prized fat of the Iberian pig to use it as "olive oil." (I have some of this fat in my fridge and am considering scrambling some eggs in it in any moment.) These amazing hams, made with only three ingredients -- the shoulder or legs of the Ibérico pig, salt, and the climate of the region, take two to three years to cure. Under the supervision of a "maestro jamonero" (master ham craftsmen), the "air" is manipulated simply by the opening or closing of glass panes.

The pig is bred for one purpose only: To be served at room temperature (so that the fat glistens) before a meal, like caviar or pâté de foie gras, accompanied only by dry sherry (a fino or amontillado) or a Spanish red wine, and perhaps a crust of bread. Why mess with perfection?

For more information on 5J 100% Pure Breed Iberico de Bellota visit Where you can find it: 5J at Despana, Dean & Deluca in NYC, Epicure and Delicias de Espana in Florida.

La Tienda and Ham Lovers carry it online:

Tastes of the Week

November 28 through December 5 This week's tastes bridge a change in the calendar as well as a change in attitude. There is the seismic shift from ordinary food to the ritualistic fare that graced our family tables on Thanksgiving. It will continue in the weeks to come as we buy our prime ribs and smoked hams, peel potatoes (and a bit of our finger) for making latkes, start baking a thousand Christmas cookies as my friend Judy Rundel has done for 30 years, find a credible fruit cake, send honeybells from Florida to friends as gifts, clip new holiday dishes to try, while we preserve our unique heritages with tattered family recipes. With the holiday lights now flickering on every street corner, we observe piles of tangerines in the stores, Christmas trees and poinsettias lining the sidewalks, and a whiff of holiday expectation in the air.

Even restaurant going this week had a sense of the season. A meal at the venerated Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagrams building, always has a bit of festivity about it -- especially in the Grill Room during lunch. Eating across the way from Ralph Lauren, it was festive indeed to dive into a puddle of creamy polenta topped with a small poached egg and a shower of shaved truffles; followed by fluke sashimi with lemongrass, steelhead salmon with wild mushrooms and green beans with an almond-caper beurre noisette (a nutty brown butter sauce), and sauteed Arctic char -- an unappreciated fish as I see it -- accompanied by salsify (an unappreciated root vegetable!), mizuna, and a truffle sauce. Disks of key lime pie and walnut tart were a gastronomic kick-off to the holidays.

Another indication that the holidays are upon us is the level of activity in New York on Saturday night:  We had an impossible time trying to get reservations, anywhere!  After two hours of searching and relying on Open Table, we found ourselves at a very good, acoustically comfortable (yet very busy) restaurant on the corner of Thompson and Spring street in Soho. Few know the chef, or owner, and it is hardly a venue in which to see or be seen, however we enjoyed it very much --  primarily for those reasons, but also because the food was unexpectedly delicious and we had wonderful service, from a staff that hailed from Poland, India and Sicily. Also unexpected was a quiet table in the corner near the window overlooking the bustle of New York night life.  We devoured creamy burrata (a cheese from the south of Italy) with excellent tomatoes (from where I wonder?), terrific fried calamari with "strings" of crispy fried vegetables, fabulously toothsome spaghetti with a sauce of fresh clams (really cockles) zucchini, olive oil and spicy garlic; mixed homemade sweet and spicy sausage with lentils, squash and broccoli rabe; filet of king salmon with a mustard sauce, celery root (another unappreciated veg!) and asparagus (thick, meaty and fresh from somewhere). My husband enjoyed his pasta special laden with duck and we toasted his prowess, and patience, in finding such an unassuming spot. Oh yes, the restaurant is called Savore. The executive chef is Francesca Bergamini and the Chef is Edilberto Soriano.

And now begins a slew of holiday recipes to get you in the mood.  Here's a sugar-coated, crackling holiday ham which will trigger mouthwatering desire. Elemental in its flavors -- salty, sweet, sharp, aromatic, its simple cooking technique keeps it moist and succulent.

Sugar-Coated, Crackling Holiday Ham

10-pound smoked ready-to-cook ham, shank portion 1 cup coarse-grain mustard (such as Pommery) 1/4 cup bourbon 1 cup sugar 1-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon 2 teaspoons ground cardamom kumquats with their leaves, for garnishing

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place ham in a shallow roasting pan and add 1/8 inch water to the pan. Cover ham with foil and bake 2-1/2 hours. Remove ham from oven and increase temperature to 450 degrees. Pour most of the fat from the pan. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, remove the rind, except for the area around the shank bone, and most of the fat. Score the remaining fat by cutting diagonal slashes in a diamond pattern. Stir together mustard and bourbon and cover the surface thickly with the mixture. Stir together sugar, cinnamon and cardamom and coat the ham, patting down to cover completely. Add freshly ground black pepper and return to the oven for 25 minutes until the sugar melts and hardens: it will become a bit crackly. Present on a large platter and decorate with kumquats with their leaves. Carve and serve while hot. Serves 12

Christmas Ham for Dr. Seuss

In a tiny cookbook called "Christmas 1-2-3" Is a recipe for ham just made for you and me You bake the ham for hours until its juices run and add a smear of mustard to make it much more fun. A slick of sugar-coating makes it taste so fine; its hint of fragrant cinnamon makes it smell divine.

There's magic in the air.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, or not, there's a good chance you feel a bit of electricity -- streets are lined with decorations, families reunite, supermarkets are bustling, champagne is chilling, a scramble for last-minute gifts (including Radically Simple!) and anticipation fills the air.  But you too might be filled with anticipation if you haven't planned your Christmas menu.  Why not try my delicious glazed ham --the world's simplest recipe -- alongside your favorite mashed potatoes (white or sweet orange) and a big bowl of Brussels sprouts with dried cranberries that glow like rubies.  It's radically simple and very delicious.

Glazed Christmas Ham

10-pound smoked ready-to-cook ham, shank portion 1 cup coarse-grain mustard 1 cup cinnamon-sugar*

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place ham on a shallow roasting pan and add 1/5 inch water to pan. Cover ham with foil and bake 15 to 16 minutes per pound for a total of about 2 hours and 40 minutes. (Adjust cooking time if your ham is more or less than 10 pounds.) After 2 hours and 15 minutes, remove ham from oven and increase temperature to 450 degrees. Pour most of fat from pan. Using a sharp, thin knife, remove the rind, except for area around shank bone, and most of the fat. Score the fat by cutting diagonal slashes across the skin to make a diamond pattern. Cover the surface thickly with mustard, then heavily coat with cinnamon-sugar, patting down if necessary. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and return to oven for 25 minutes, until sugar melts and hardens. It will become a bit crackly. Present on a large platter, decorated as desired. Carve and serve while hot. Serves 12

*You can buy cinnamon-sugar or make your own by mixing 1 cup granulated sugar with 1-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon.

Brussels Sprouts with Sun-Dried Cranberries 1-1/4 pounds Brussels sprouts 1 cup sun-dried cranberries 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Trim the ends of the Brussels sprouts and remove any bruised outer leaves. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add Brussels sprouts and boil 10 minutes. Immediately drain in a colander under cold water. Dry them on paper towels. When ready to sauté, place cranberries in a small bowl and add boiling water to cover. Let sit 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Cut sprouts in half through the stem end. Melt butter in a very large sauté pan. Add sprouts and cranberries and cook over medium-high heat until sprouts are tender but still green with areas of golden color. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Serves 6