A smoked ham hock is one of those items off a hog that will never win any beauty contests. It comes to you still wearing its skin, now dark and leathery from the smoker. Sometimes, a few wiry hairs still jut out from the skin, a reminder of its provenance. A thick bone protrudes from its centre, making it obvious that there isn't much to it but bone. I was more than a little intimidated the first time I freed one of these from its butchers' paper. I just wasn't sure that I wanted it in my pot, especially with that hair. Did this thing really belong in a cooking pot? (The one pictured above is a much nicer-looking specimen than my first hock. Hair-free too.)
But I quickly came to appreciate a smoked hock for what it was. It isn't always about looks, you know. See, a smoked ham hock is an ingenious thing. The hock is the cut from a hog's hind leg between the foot and the ham proper. Unlike the ham, there isn't much meat to the hock. It's mostly bone, skin, and tough connective tissue. And what meat there is is pretty lean. For these reasons, it's not a much sought-after cut. It takes a little work to get to a hock's goodness--a long, low, simmer. So the smoking is one way to make it worthwhile. As a smoked hock breaks down in its cooking liquid, it gives off a lot of flavour--smoky, porky, woodsy flavour. Like I said, ingenious.
Now, maybe early January isn't the best time to be extolling the virtues of pig parts. But one of things I like most about a smoked pork hock is that a little goes a long way. Drop just one meaty hock (remember, it's mostly bone) into a pot with some onion and water and set it to simmer, and you're on your way to something special. That's the idea, anyway, behind Kemp Minifie's hoppin' John collard stew. You let your hock simmer away the afternoon, returning just to add some black-eyed peas to the pot after an hour and some collard greens an hour after that. It's my favourite kind of winter cooking. You can leave things to bubble merrily on their own and wander off to daydream, read, or do a load of laundry. And when the day's light has faded, you just return to fish out the hock, separate the meat from skin, fat, and bone, return the meat to the pot, and then ladle some of that stew over a plate of rice.
Pork and beans and greens might not exactly be your idea of how to start off the new year. But the smoked ham hock and the culinary tradition behind it--the resourcefulness of it, the ingeniousness of it--really appeal to me right now. These are ideas I can get behind, ideas I want to carry with me the whole year through. And, if nothing else, who doesn't like a pile of silky collards, smoky meat, and creamy beans floating in porky broth on a cold winter's night? Just don't forget to bring your favourite hot sauce to the table too. Happy new year, everyone.
Hoppin' John Collard Stew
From Kemp Minifie via Gourmet
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 tsp hot red-pepper flakes
1 meaty smoked ham hock, about 1 lb in weight
10 cups water
1/2 lb / 1 1/4 cups dried black-eyed peas, picked over and rinsed (don’t soak)
1 lb collard greens, center ribs discarded and leaves chopped
Hot sauce to serve
Cook onion in oil with 1/2 tsp salt in a deep heavy medium pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add red-pepper flakes and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add ham hock and water and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.
Add black-eyed peas and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.
Stir in collards (add water if necessary for a soupy consistency) and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until greens are very tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove ham hock and chop meat, discarding skin, fat, and bone. Stir into stew and thin with water, if necessary, then season with salt.
Serve over rice and with hot sauce at the table. The acidity of the hot sauce helps to cut through the rich smokiness of the stew.