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The Nasty Bits: Using Smoked Meats in Soups

"Whatever you do, just be sure not to use your ham as a lance when you're walking down the street."

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Last week I punched a man in midtown Manhattan with the shank end of a ham bone.

I was walking on the street with a 20-pound thing of bone-in ham tucked underneath my left armpit when a man passing by slammed right into the end of the leg, right where a butcher detaches the trotter of the pig. The ham bone was left over from a ham tasting we did in December. The bone sat in Kenji's fridge for weeks until I mentioned that I was looking for smoked animal parts to use in my winter stews.

During the winter months my diet consists mostly of soups and stews, which offer everything I need dietary-wise. A hearty stew provides protein, fiber, and the added bonus of warmth. A big bonus if, like me, you have to constantly nurse hot beverages and soups in the winter months to stay sane and healthy.

I used to toss some fresh neck bones and pig's feet into the soup pot, but lately I've been thinking that stews benefit the most from smoked, bony meat. This is not to say that soups don't taste good with fresh meat. But in my opinion, adding smoked meat is the best thing you could be doing for your soup.

If you want depth of flavor, smoked meat has much more savory depth and cured complexity than fresh flesh. If you want convenience, a smoked meat product will keep for a long time with no need to defrost or plan ahead—simply start your soup and toss in the hunks when you're ready. Finally, the smoked meat product has the advantage of tasting smoked, which is obvious but pretty key considering how much better your broths will taste with a hint of something smokey.

When to Add Them?

To use your smoked meat parts in stew, simply add the parts into the soup pot at the beginning of cooking, after you've sweated your aromatics and added water or stock. Smoked meat parts in soup. Think about it: easy to use, flavorful, and delicious.

What To Do if You Hit a Stranger with a Ham Bone

Which is why I felt it was worth my time and considerable walk around midtown Manhattan lugging a smoked ham leg. If not for the deafening sounds of traffic, then I'm sure I would have heard the slight thump of the ham bone as it went into the man's gut. I saw his eyes widen, then narrow quickly in pain.

"Oh my goodness!" I cried. "I am so, so, extremely sorry, sir."

I put down my ham bone and touched his forearm in concern.

"Are you alright?" I asked.

He was crouched over gripping his gut. Then he stood up straight and squinted down into the bag.

"Is, is that ham?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes, it's a bone-in Christmas ham."

"But it's not Christmas!" he exclaimed. He seemed more perturbed at the oddity of having run into a Christmas ham in Midtown than the actual impact of injury, which I took as a good sign. That was when I noticed the slight smear of fat on his expensive-looking wool coat.

"Oh dear, you have fat on your coat," I told him. "Could I help out with the dry-cleaning?"

He looked down. "No, that's alright. It should come off," he said. "But I've probably missed my train."

I reached into my bag and found a few chocolates and figs. "Here, have some chocolates and figs." I said.

"Thanks," he replied. "I was hungry."

We stood still for another few seconds or so, each wondering how to end our awkward, strange interaction.

"Well, I'm going to try to catch the next train," he said, walking away.

"Right. OK. Again, so sorry," I mumbled.

I picked up my ham bone and made sure this time that the bone was not pointing outwards. I felt badly about the whole incident. The man would not have run into my ham bone if he hadn't been brushing past people on the street. But then again, I think that reasonable people can expect to do some amount of rushing in Manhattan without the fear of running into a injurious pig part.

So here's my suggestion for this week: If you like stews and soups (and you're not a vegetarian), then get yourself to a grocery store and stock up on a variety of smoked animal parts and dried beans. If you've got those two key ingredients, then you'll be as happy as a beaver in a cozy den during the wintry weather.

Your grocery store will have a variety of smoked meat products for your eating pleasure and I'm willing to bet that almost all of them will be those humble, underappreciated animal parts that we so love to discuss on Nasty Bits.

But Which Meat?

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Neck bones, one of my favorite ingredients in general, are utterly tasty when smoked. (Turkey, pork, and beef neck bones are usually available at butcher shops and ethnic grocery stores.)

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Smoked ham hock, if you can get it, is extremely good as well because like neck bones, you get all the gelatin and bone you need for a full-bodied soup, plus a lot of smoked flesh.

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Smoked turkey wings are also good additions. I bought this one from a guy selling smoked meat parts from a truck in Harlem. I do love Harlem.

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Pig's tails, one of my favorite nasty bits parts, are wonderful smoked. Since the tail is especially fatty, you can brown the tail to render some of its fat and use the fat to saute the rest of the ingredients fro your stew.

Finally, since we're coming off the holidays, perhaps you too have a ham bone in your fridge and aren't sure of what to do with it. Bring the bone to your friendly butcher, flash him a winsome smile, and have him (or her!) cut the leg bone into manageable parts for you with a mechanical bandsaw. (Or maybe buy something first from the butcher counter and then flash that winsome smile.)

Whatever you do, just be sure not to use your ham as a lance when you're walking down the street.

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