At the weekend, Stephen had a fit of culinary enthusiasm, and decided to cook his celebrated chicken and ham pie. This meant that, not only did we have to hightail it to the supermarket for industrial quantities of cheese, we also needed to get hold of some ham to augment the rather paltry quantities of chicken which we had left by Sunday afternoon. After several pie-making sessions, we have decided that the both the tastiest and the most practical way of coming by a decent quantity of ham for the purpose is to cook a gammon shank: this economical cut (Morrisons sell them for £1.99), also known as a ham hock or hough, yields plenty of moist, flavoursome meat and takes very little time and trouble to prepare. If you’re not planning to make a pie, the ham would work beautifully in a recipe like Liz’s one for Pasta alla Medici, or added into a dish of cauliflower cheese for a substantial tea, while still leaving plenty over for a couple of sandwiches. The real bonus though, is that adding an extra ingredient or two to the pot while cooking your gammon gets you almost all the way to a surprise bonus meal: several generous portions of ham and lentil soup which come in very handy around lunchtime in this cold weather.
There is one ingredient here which you may not have to hand unless you have recently been feeding a small child, namely the baby stock cubes: I happened to have a stash of these in the house, left over from the time when Eoin was still quite small, and I was having to be pretty cautious about the salt content of any meals he would be sharing. They’re very low in salt, and, while they’re not usually as much use as home-made stock or a regular stock cube, they come into their own in this recipe: the gammon can be fairly salty in itself, and the baby cubes add flavour and depth to the sauce without adding any unnecessary extra salt. If you don’t have baby stock cubes hanging around, and you don’t think you’ll use them in the future, I’d advise using low-salt stock cubes, or perhaps half of a regular one. If you’re really the sort of person who can’t live without your meals tasting as if they contain a liberal dose of seawater, feel free to season at the table.
Ham and Lentil Soup
You will need:
- One gammon shank/ham hock/whatever your butcher calls it. You’re looking for something a bit like this.
- Two onions
- Two good-sized carrots
- A leek
- A generous handful of red lentils
- A baby-friendly vegetable stock cube, or an alternative as discussed above
Chop the vegetables roughly, and add them to a large pot. There’s a school of thought that you should braise them a little first, but to be honest I never do: there’s quite a bit of fat under the skin of the gammon shank, and, even though most of it tends to stay put during the cooking process, I don’t like to add extra fat to the mix. Sit the gammon shank straight on top of the vegetables, and add water to the pot so that it almost (but not quite) covers the meat. Turn the heat on, and, while bringing the pot up to the boil, crumble in the stock cube and add the lentils. In terms of seasoning, I’d suggest sticking with pepper and perhaps a bay leaf: you don’t want to add extra salt, for obvious reasons. Allow the pot to boil for a couple of minutes, then turn down to a simmer, cover, and leave for about an hour and a half on a very low heat.
When the gammon is cooked, carefully remove it from the pot, brushing off any lentils which might be adhering to its skin. and leave it on a board to cool for a little. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and fat with the aid of a sharp knife: Liz’s recipe, above, suggests reserving a little of the fat and dry frying it with some additional flavourings to make a crackling-type garnish. I admit I haven’t tried doing this, but it does sound delicious. Remove the meat from the bone and add it to whatever dish you are using it for.
Don’t worry if the stock looks as bit as if it has yellow scum on the top: this is just some of the lentils which will have broken down during the cooking process. Using a stick blender, blend the stock, lentils and vegetable chunks into a smooth soup. Eat in large, comforting bowlfuls, and feel inwardly protected against the wind and rain.