Over the last twelve months or so I’ve become rather enamoured of ham hock; a cheap, tasty cut of meat that needs some work but which is amazingly rewarding. It’s basically a pig’s front shins, I gather, and not the most sophisticated purchase; even our local, award-winning, reputationally expensive butcher sells them for only £3.50 each – I got about 450g of meat off the last one we bought after I’d stripped it off the bone, which makes it cheaper than any sliced ham or bacon you’d get, pretty much.
Because hock’s on the bone, and fatty too, it needs some serious cooking. I’ve taken to parceling it in tinfoil with a splash of olive oil, some bay leaves, sage and thyme, a few cloves of garlic, a shake or two of allspice, half an onion, and whatever else I might have laying around, plus half a cup of water. I roughly seal the parcel, and put it in a roasting tray in the oven for about 4 hours at 160 degrees; after two hours, I check it and maybe add a splash more water (I’d use cider if we had any around).
After time’s up, take the ham hock out of the oven, let it cool for 30-45 minutes, and then have at it with a couple of robust forks and your fingers – tear the meat off the bone and pull it out of the fat, get into all the joints between the bones with your fingers and make sure you waste absolutely none of the incredibly tasty, deep-red flesh. (If you’re feeling lazy, you can buy little trays of ready-pulled ham hock from the supermarket; it’ll cost you more, but save you time. Will it be as tasty? Not quite.)
You can use the pulled ham hock for whatever you want – it works well in sandwiches, though it’s more value, I think, in a puff-pastry-lidded pie with some seriously sweated leeks, or in a quiche with yet more leeks and a savoury custard and mature cheddar, or added to a sage and onion stuffing mix for a turkey. But my favourite thing to do with a ham hock was decided a couple of weeks ago; put it in a rarebit.
Now rarebit always seemed a little pointless to me; cheese on toast is so simple and so good, why would you want to fart around with roux and mustard and a tiny splash of beer? Then one day, for some unknown reason, I decided to try a recipe for onion rarebit (I think by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, although I can’t find which book it might be from right now), which seemed a little more substantial and therefore more worthwhile spending some time on. So I browned some onions, made a roux of some melted butter and flour, added milk, grated cheese, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a hint of nutmeg and a splash of beer…
Sure enough, I found it absolutely delicious, and, as Emma had no interest in trying it, it made enough to leave some in a pot in the fridge for the next day (and even the day after that). Since then I’ve made it a number of times, and, as with any recipe, have got confident enough to mess around with it if every ingredient isn’t to hand in exactly the right quantities; red onions instead of white, no onions at all, baby leeks instead of onions, no beer, etcetera etcetera.
So it seemed almost painfully obvious to combine ham hock with beautifully browned onions in a rarebit the other week, especially when I had the last dregs of my Christmas keg of Doom Bar to hand. It was, if I say so myself, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
a knob of butter
a finely-chopped white onion
another knob of butter
a tablespoon of plain flour
a big glug of milk
a handful of grated mature cheddar cheese
a handful of pulled ham hock
a teaspoon of Dijon mustard
a shake of ground nutmeg
a couple of slices of bread, lightly toasted on the underside
What to do
Get a medium-sized pan on the hob at a low-to-medium heat, and melt the first knob of butter. Add the finely chopped onion, and keep it moving in the pan with a wooden spoon until it goes translucent and golden with flecks of brown. Professional recipe books will pretend that this take 5 minutes, but it doesn’t; it takes more like 15 or 20, but it’s worth it. There are few things finer in the world than slowly cooked onions that have gone properly golden-brown. Just making them go translucent white isn’t good enough – you want the sugars to caramelize and add amazing depth to the flavour.
When the onions are ready, add the second knob of butter, and when it’s melted quickly stir in the flour. Melted butter and flour makes a roux, which is the basis for pretty much any sauce. It’ll make a yellow-y paste around the onions, and bubble a little.
Once it’s bubbling, turn the heat up a little and slowly add the milk – depending on the amount of butter and size of the onion and how much flour you use, it could take between a couple of hundred milliliters and a pint. Stir constantly, so that the roux absorbs the milk and it becomes a sauce.
When your milk is all in and you have a smooth, thick consistency, add the cheese, mustard, splash of beer, and nutmeg, stirring all the while. Then add the ham hock. Once the cheese is melted in and the ham hock is spread through nicely, it should be more like an emulsified paste than a runny sauce; it should be able to sit on top of toast and need to be spread out over it with a spatula, and it shouldn’t ooze or slip off the top.
So, obviously, spread it on the untoasted side of your bread, and stick it under a medium grill for a few minutes until it goes mottled and brown – it wont bubble like regular cheese on toast, so keep an eye on it and don’t let it burn. If you make enough or the rarebit topping, it’ll keep in a sealed container in the fridge for two or three days. Serve with a glass of chilled beer, and eat it standing up in the kitchen, or while wandering around the garden if the weather’s good. Honestly, there’s nothing better.