My experience with Chinese food was extremely limited growing up. For a number of reasons. First being, we rarely would go out to eat. It either had to be a very special occasion, even then my mother and Grandmother would be the caterer, or we were out after dinner hour and it really didn’t pay to go home and cook. On the rare occasion that we would go out to eat it would usually be for Chinese food. My friends today would say, “boy, you must have eaten in some good Italian restaurants growing up in Brooklyn”. Yea, right. Mom and Grandma were the Italian restaurants. Why would we pay someone else twice the money to eat food of half the quality?? It just wasn’t done.
So it was a rare treat when my parents would take us out for Chinese Food. I could remember that we would bypass the Chinese restaurant down the block from us and go about 10 miles away to another one. In my parents wisdom, just because it was close it didn’t make it any good. As a matter of fact, the further away a place was, the better it had to be. We had a doctor who’s practice was right on our corner, Dr Generelli. As often as I was sick as a child my mother never took me to him. I went to Dr. Brown on Bay Parkway, about 15 miles away. He had to be better!
Until the age of high school, the only thing I thought was on a Chinese menu was Chicken Chow Mein. As a matter of fact, I never realized they had menus in Chinese restaurants. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant on 86th Street but I knew we had to walk up a flight of steps to get to its second floor location. We would sit down at the table and after the waiter brought us the tea and duck sauce, Chinese mustard and fried noodles my mother would order a round of Won Ton soup for everyone and for the second course, Chicken Cow Mein. I wasn’t allowed to drink the tea until I got older. Water was it. I didn’t know they served soda at Chinese restaurants either. Till this day, I still don’t order soda at a Chinese restaurant, but I’ll drink the tea and water. When the food came my mother would plate my dish….rice on the bottom, a few scoops of Chicken Chow Mein, crushed noodles on top, a sprinkle of soy sauce and when I was older, a few dabs of Chinese mustard. If desert was part of the “Family Dinner” we would have ice cream, and of course the fortune cookie.
When I was older and started dating I remember taking my date to the Chinese Restaurant on the corner. I didn’t have a car yet. I was all ready to order Chicken Chow Mein, until the waiter handed me a menu. I was sort of taken back a little and opened the menu to see maybe they had different versions of Chicken Chow Mein. You could have imagined my surprise when I saw all the different dishes they offered. I asked my date if she ever had Chicken Chow Mein. She never did. So I introduced her to something different.
Now, you might ask what does Chinese food have to do with baked ham? Or with Italian Comfort food. Actually, nothing. Other then the recipe was given to me by my neighbors wife, who happens to be Chinese. I know, it’s a stretch. But nothing else I cook has to do with Chinese food and I thought this was the only chance I had to fit in this story. So bear with me. Besides, to me, Chicken Chow Mein is Comfort food.
I tried this baked smoked ham at my neighbor’s house one evening and had to have the recipe. This has been added to my list of comfort foods and I have been making it this way for the last 20 years.
Here is what’s actually going on with this dish. You’re as much cooking it as you are drying the ham. Smoked hams we buy in today’s supermarkets are mostly water. This cooking process drys out the ham so it taste as good as a true Virginia baked ham. There is a difference in what we buy here and what they sell down south. Another little lesson in hams, I always buy the Butt HALF or Shank HALF. Never the Butt PORTION or Shank PORTION. The reason is on the PORTION cut they slice away the center portion of the ham and sell it as ham steaks. And the center of the ham is the best cut. I know, you are getting a smaller ham with the PORTION cut, but believe me, ham never goes to waste. You can dice it and scramble it with eggs in the morning, ham sandwich paradise, let’s not forget Ham Salad. And ham freezes well, just pack the left over in a zip lock bag and it stores for months. I always leave a bag in the fridge and snack on it right out of the refrigerator. Ham never lasts long in my house. And let’s not forget Pea Soup! Yummm.