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Country Ham and Red-Eye Gravy

Serves 4 to 6

If you are not familiar with country ham, you really should try it some time. It has a firm flesh and unique flavor. The only drawback, at least in my opinion, is that it is quite salty, more so than other hams. The difference is in the curing process. Country hams are dry-cured, first in a seasoned salt mixture for several days, then rinsed off and smoked slowly over hardwood fires. Finally, they are hung to cure for 6 to 12 months, sometimes longer. In the south, people often buy the whole country ham and either roast it or keep it, believe it or not, in a cupboard for slicing as needed. Any mold that forms on the outside is removed before slicing. I am not quite that adventurous, nor do I eat ham that often. I purchase pre-sliced portions when I need them. They are great for flavoring cooked vegetables, such as green beans, or for frying and using in biscuit sandwiches, or this recipe. As for red-eye gravy, I was surprised to read an encyclopedia definition that claimed it is made by adding water to a fried ham skillet, with coffee as an optional ingredient. I thought the coffee was essential because everyone I know adds it. In any case, it is very good with the coffee. If you cannot find country ham, any good smoked ham will work in this recipe.

Ingredients

Cut a few small slits in the edges of the ham to help prevent curling when frying. (Do not remove all of the fat on the edges. It adds great flavor to the gravy.) Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium -high heat. Add the ham slices and fry until lightly browned on both sides. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the coffee and water to the pan. Bring to a boil and cook, scraping up the browned bits in the bottom of the pan, until reduced by at least one-half. Return the ham to the pan and turn to warm and coat both sides with the gravy. Serve the ham topped with some of the gravy.

Notes: Country ham can be soaked overnight in cold water and refrigerated, then drained to remove some of the salt. Be certain to pat dry before frying. Country ham with red-eye gravy is traditionally served for breakfast with buttered grits and biscuits. I like it for dinner, served the same way, or with boiled potatoes, cooked greens and cornbread. You can use coffee leftover from breakfast in the gravy. If it is not very strong, omit the water and add more of the coffee.