Monday, December 21, 2009

In search of a naturally raised holiday ham

Cuban-Style pork roast

I have been looking for an uncured, naturally raised ham to serve on Christmas Day, a holiday my wife and son celebrate. I have read that hogs receive more antibiotics than any other animal raised for food. I also want an uncured ham to avoid such preservatives as sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite.

Last week, Costco's first antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed half ham showed up at the Hackensack store, but I was disappoinited to see that it had been cured and preserved with sodium nitrite. Next to it was a ham steak with no preservatives, but nothing on the label said it came from a naturally raised animal. You can't win.

On the Organic Prairie Web site, I saw an uncured, hardwood-smoked, boneless half ham from an heirloom breed that was free of antibiotics, growth hormones and other additives. Best of all, it was about three pounds -- perfect for my family of three. You might recall how we have struggled to eat much bigger hams. But I would have to buy three hams for a total of $81.42 -- about $9.05 a pound -- plus $15 for shipping.

I'll check out Trader Joe's and Whole Foods in Paramus tomorrow to see what kind of hams they carry, but I am also planning to shop for traditional Cuban roast pork (photo) and side dishes. This means I'll have to throw out all concerns about antibiotics and how the animals were raised, but the garlic-rich cooking wins me over time and again.

When I say shop, I mean making the trip to La Pola in West New York, where I have purchased food for several Cuban Christmas meals in the past. On the day before Christmas, most of the tables and chairs of the Cuban sandwich shop will be cleared away to make room for racks holding roasted hams and ribs. Side dishes such as rice cooked with black beans (congris), garlic sauce (mojito) and plaintain chips also will be available.

Belarmino Rico, the proprietor, his sons and wife are usually swamped at this time of the year, but their welcome is warm. In an article I wrote for The Record in 2003, I crowned Rico's Cuban sandwich the best among a dozen I tasted in North Jersey. With a name like Rico (Spanish for delicious), he couldn't lose.

La Pola Restaurant, 5400 Palisade Ave (54th Street), 
West New York;  (201) 867-6028. Call for holiday hours.

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