Ham – Ready To Be Rediscovered

Make this versatile ingredient new again with intriguing dishes that call on familiar flavours and global accents.

Ham is an unsung hero. And the thing about heroes is that they come to the rescue at the perfect time … like now. Opportunities await operators willing to try some unexpected and delicious ways to add ham to the menu. 

Two Gordon Food Service chefs are sharing creative recipes featuring ham, plus they have plenty of advice on why ham is a great way to achieve cross-utilization, labour savings, and menu differentiation.

“Many people only think of ham at the buffet table or for a holiday meal, and they are missing out,” said Corporate Executive Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski. “It can be a first-to-market differentiator as an LTO [limited-time offer] or as part of the menu lineup.”

Ham is a stealthy menu ingredient. You may already use it in a cobb or chef’s salad. It works as a pizza topping, a smoky-sweet flavour enhancer for collard greens, and a ham and beans side dish. Add some slices (or even a slab) to a burger. In short, it’s all that … and a ham sandwich.

“Ham is cheaper than steak, but it’s not usually the main course,” said Chef Steven Halliday, an Atlanta-based Gordon Food Service Culinary Specialist. “It’s great as a supporting actor, and ham is a good platform for being creative because there are so many varieties and it’s so versatile.”

Ham Fits Many Spots on the Menu

From whole muscle to pit ham, pressed ham, football ham, and more, there are many styles and qualities to consider. Then comes the culinary creativity. You can brine ham, add a rub, glaze it, shave it on your slicer, use the bone to flavour broth … you get the idea.

“There may not be anything in the market driving ham as a trend, but unless you observe religious dietary restrictions, most people enjoy ham,” Halliday said. “With all of the different varieties, cross-utilization is a huge benefit.”

Other benefits include pricing that historically has been more stable and consistent than proteins like poultry or beef. Unlike some other animal proteins, ham is not experiencing product shortages or supply-chain challenges, making this an even better time to add it to the menu.

There’s really nowhere on the menu that ham feels out of place, our chefs point out. It’s a natural at breakfast … benedicts, anyone? It crosses nicely into the lunch hour as a sandwich or salad favourite. Ham mac and cheese works as an appetizer or a side. A ham and mango chutney can accompany an entree, or chipped ham can be a meal on its own.

Even the dessert and beverage menus are open for exploration. If bacon can be paired with chocolate, then creative chefs can find a way to add honey ham or candied ham to a dessert special. 

Beverages? The sweet-salty flavour and firm texture makes ham ideal for including on a skewer with olives and onions and adding to a bloody Mary, martini, or Gibson. 

“No matter what kind of concept you have, there’s a ham that can fill multiple roles, and you can increase check averages if you offer it as an add-on like ham on a salad, a burger, or a pizza,” Halliday said.

Ham’s special ingredient? … Efficiency

In addition to the simple cross-utilization possibilities, ham is also a labour-, time-, and cost-saving product. Ham saves hours of prep and labour because it arrives already cooked and seasoned. It can be quickly warmed for service or used cold in charcuterie, sandwich, or salad applications.

“It’s like using speed-scratch because it’s already cooked and, because you can choose the quality of the ham, it will have consistent flavour and quality,” Kwiatkowski said. “You’re taking out all of the guesswork – you don’t have to braise it, sear it, or slack it out of the freezer on sheet trays overnight – a little bit of fabrication goes a long way.”

Both chefs point out that ham is not something you have to re-familiarize your staff or customers with like you might do with seasonal or new ingredients. 

Ham’s biggest challenge? For most consumers, ham is the same everywhere you go. That’s why the culinary experts teamed up to introduce creative ways to add ham to the menu.

Ham Recipes Guests Will Notice

For an operator looking to add ham to the menu, it can be as simple as accents of ham in a fried rice side dish or as expertly crafted as a croque monsieur or croque madame. For those looking to build more excitement, these five recipes demonstrate approachable, flavour-forward ideas.

Ham & Cheese Khachapuri

Pronounced “CASH-a-purr-e,” this dish is a staple on tables in the Eastern European nation of Georgia. Its name means “curd bread” and khachapuri is typically an elongated flatbread with pinched ends, filled in the center with cheese, seasonings, and an egg.

“In this recipe, I used a Tavolini pizza dough and dried herb seasonings, the cheese, the ham and baked it to cheesy deliciousness and then added the egg,” Kwiatkowski said. “All of the ingredients are familiar and most kitchens already stock them, but you’re able to present them in a way that surprises and delights.”

Ham & Pear Grilled Cheese

Few comfort foods compare to grilled cheese, and this one takes advantage of ham’s ability to marry with fruit. This griddle-cooked sandwich uses ham slices, two cheeses, mustard, caramelized pear slices, and prepared terpin berry-bacon jam.

“Think of all the ways you use glazes on ham, and this one takes it up one more notch,” Kwiatkowski said. “Using a Havarti instead of American cheese, a brie-mustard spread, caramelized pears, and a jam spread make it an elevated grilled cheese that’s pretty easy to do.”

Ham & White Bean Polpette

Step aside, crab cake. This recipe crafts a pan-fried panko-crust patty featuring ham, cheese, onion, garlic, kale, and red pepper sauce all bound together by a cannellini bean puree.

“Ham and beans are the stars. They go so well together, why not present them in a way no one expects?” Kwiatkowski asked. 

Hot Curry Ramen

Inspired by an encounter with a Japanese chef during a trip to the Philippines, Halliday brings some global influences with a brothy noodle bowl recipe. It’s flavoured with a red curry paste, coconut milk, sliced ham, green apple, and soft-boiled eggs topped with a drizzle of chili oil.

“This is made with fresh noodles, a curry with a lot of fresh ingredients, apple chunks for texture, and the coconut helps to marry the savory and sweet flavours,” he said. “It’s a little bit Japanese and a little bit Thai – well suited for a New American-style restaurant.

Ithailian Spring Roll

Combining classic Italian and Thai (I-Thai-lian), Halliday’s invention plays off of traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. Ham, pepperoni, salami, Provolone cheese, vermicelli, romaine lettuce, banana peppers, roasted red peppers, and Thai basil leaves are rolled into a rice paper wrapper and dipped in a global-flavoured sauce.

“In the Philippines, I had some time to experience street foods, and they had these little rice paper pouches with ham and Thai basil, so I just took inspiration from that,” he said. “There are Italian and Thai ingredients, and the sauce is an Italian-inspired ponzu.”

Expand Ham’s Horizons

If these ham recipes seem more suited to restaurants and other foodservice operations, think again. Catering and event planners can add excitement far beyond the basic warm or cold ham slices.

“I think the ramen bowl would be great for an action station at a special event, or the spring rolls could be a passed hors d’oeuvre,” Halliday said. The same is true of the ham and bean cakes.

Kwiatkowski envisions creative chefs building ham-filled lettuce boats for brunch or buffet service. Simply break leaves off of romaine hearts, add a schmear of hot mustard or pub mustard, and then add a rolled-up piece of ham and a bite of cheese.

“There’s not much cost there, yet it has a cool impact because it’s not something people see every day,” he said. “And, if you wanted to add it to your menu, it’s a gluten-free sharing plate option.”  

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