For more than thirty years, James Villas has devote his life to food. It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Twenty-seven years of his career were as Food and Wine Editor of Town & Country. He has also written about his food endeavors for a slew of other publications including Esquire, Saveur, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Life, The New York Times, and don't forget the cookbooks, two of my favorites with his mother, Martha Pearl Villas, who died several years ago. Miss Martha Pearl always traveled with her White Lily Flour, a custom I understand, but I digress...
Usually, when writing books one moves from the general to the specific. James Villas, who wrote the ever popular book, Bacon, moved from this particular cut of pork to whole hog in his book Pig. Leave it to a good old Southern boy to call his book simply Pig. Really, does one need further info? There are, of course, a few bacon recipes and standards like ham steak and red eye gravy. There is a traditional spiced stuffed hams seen on every buffet South of the Mason-Dixon, and some fancier fare. Still, no one can give a better explanation of how to make a great fried pig's ear.
Recently I made some great double-fried french fries for a cookout. A guest went on and on about how good they were. He never got his fries to taste like that. I told him to double fry them and he looked a bit stunned. "You made these?" he said. "you cut them and everything?" Well duh! Why do think they were so good!
For the next few days, I got e-mails from "friends" outlining how bad potatoes were for one's diet. I got potato chip, french fries and just plain old baked potato warnings. Let me just say that if I have the choice of living to be a hundred without fries or living to eighty with a big bowl of cheese fries covered in bacon and ranch dressing... no contest...but I digress.
Back to Pig.
So I decided to share a recipe featuring pork AND potatoes. And not just pork but Virginia Ham, with a salt content that blows the USDA standards right out of the water. Here is Villas' take on such a dish.
"Scalloped potatoes with lots of butter and cheese have been a staple in Southern homes for centuries, but only in Virginia have I encountered the dish made with the state's incomparable country-cured ham -- simply called "Virginia ham" in the Old Dominion. Do remember that you need to use dry russet potatoes for any gratin, and if the potatoes seem to be drying out after 35 or 40 minutes, just add a little whole milk, basting them slightly to produce a golden crust."
Old Dominion Scalloped Potatoes with Country Ham4 medium russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 cup finely diced cooked country ham
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 cup half-and-half
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Butter a 1 1/2 to 2-quart gratin or baking dish and arrange alternate layers of overlapping potato slices and ham, sprinkling a few chives over each layer and seasoning with salt and pepper. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese over the top, dot with the butter, pour the half-and-half over the top, and bake till the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes, basting from time to time with the liquid. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake till golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.
3. Serve piping hot directly from the dish.
Ham and potatoes. I'm ready to meet my maker or my Maker's Mark, which ever comes first.