Monday, April 23, 2012

Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy

country ham & redeye gravy
Scrambled eggs, grits, country ham, & red eye gravy
Having grown up in the North, I didn't experience a true Southern breakfast or even hear of red eye gravy until I moved down to North Carolina over 20 years ago. And the so-called "country ham" I had tasted in NYC didn't come close to the mouthwatering saltiness, subtle smokiness, and succulent "hamminess" of genuine, traditionally cured North Carolina country ham.

A typical old-fashioned Southern breakfast is honest, hearty fare that's meant to fuel the body and soul for a long day of hard work running a farm or a household. Eggs, meat such as country ham, sausage, or bacon (or more than one of those), buttermilk biscuits, and a bowl of grits... A well-prepared Southern breakfast may be a cardiologist's nightmare, but it will make an old-timer smile, a carnivore grin, and a lover of traditional foods rejoice. Although my typical breakfast is admittedly much lighter and "healthier" by modern standards, I do enjoy the occasional treat of a genuine Southern breakfast, especially if made using old-fashioned ingredients like our great-grandparents ate, namely eggs and ham from local, naturally-raised free range chickens and pigs, fresh hand-made biscuits, stone-ground grits from non-GMO corn, etc. At least that helps me rationalize the fact that I'm ingesting a whole lot of calories, carbs and fat grams for someone with a desk job!

Red eye gravy is unlike other gravies in that it is not thickened with flour or cornstarch. It is a relatively thin, deeply dark brown, almost translucent liquid with enough viscosity to lightly coat a spoon. The name comes from one of its two ingredients: Brewed coffee.  The other ingredient is the grease or pan "drippins" (including any crispy bits) from frying country ham, sausage or bacon. Red eye gravy is often poured over country ham or grits, or served in a small bowl. Biscuits are used for sopping up the gravy, unless it's poured over grits.

Making red eye gravy involves more "feel" and "taste" than precise measurement, and the amount of coffee used will depend on amount of drippings left in your pan, as well as how many breakfast plates you're preparing. Keep in mind that different types of meat will produce varying amounts of drippings, with bacon and sausage usually shedding far more grease than country ham. If you end up with half an inch of grease in your pan but you're only making breakfast for two, you probably have too much grease. Pour some out--I save my excess bacon drippings in a glass jar in the fridge for other uses--and leave less than a quarter inch in the pan. You can always add more if you wish.

Country Ham
Buy NC country ham
I recommend that beginners first try their hand at making red eye gravy when they fry country ham, ideally using a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Plan on 1 slice of ham and a biscuit or two and/or a small bowl of grits per person, plus eggs if desired. For every two slices of country ham you fry, you should have enough grease left in the pan to serve two people when combined with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of freshly brewed coffee. Cook the ham in the skillet for a few minutes per side until lightly browned, then remove the ham from the skillet (I place it on an oven-safe dish and keep in a warm oven until ready to serve). Pour the hot coffee into the pan and cook over high heat, stirring the bubbling liquid and gently scraping up any little crusty bits--I use a wooden spoon, and NEVER use a metal spoon on cast iron.  Keep cooking & stirring until the gravy is reduced by half. Taste for balance--I find it's salty enough "as is" but you might prefer to add salt, or perhaps some pepper--and serve.

Do you make red-eye gravy? If so, please leave a comment to share your tips or your recipe!

Zestfully yours,

PS:  Be sure to visit our Country Ham page to browse through the different types of genuine Smithfield NC country ham that we offer through our partner, Johnston County Hams.

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