Some modern-day Easter traditions are rooted in ancient rituals as capricious and colorful as the eggs we -I mean, the Easter Bunny -hide every year. The Easter Bunny himself, for example, was imported to the U.S. in the 18th century by German immigrants; if the Swiss had gotten to us first, we'd be gnawing wings off of chocolate Easter Cuckoos. And if you think egg-wielding rabbits and basket-delivering cuckoos are hard to explain, imagine how French parents feel, trying to convince their children that those pretty eggs were brought to them by flying Easter Bells. The nice thing about traditions, though, is that they can always be reinterpreted. Consider the traditional Easter ham. If you've been thinking it's due for an upgrade, good news! Thanks to the passion and innovation of a few local chefs, when it comes to a fresh interpretations of ham and pork, you've got lots of delicious options to choose from. In years past, ham -and all pork dishes, for that matter - was regarded as kind of a ho-hum, everyday meat here in the United States. But that's changed dramatically in the last decade or so; in fact, one would be hard-pressed to name any other meat that has experienced such a profound culinary renaissance. In everything from ethnic inner-city food trucks to elegant four-star restaurants, chefs across the country are celebrating the versatility and uniqueness of pork dishes of all kinds, by sourcing from heritage pig farms, curing hams and sausages in-house, and importing exquisite artisan charcuterie from venerated European producers.
In some European countries, certain types of meats are classified and regulated according to their quality and geographical origin, just like wine. Spanish jamn ibrico, which is made from black Iberian pigs, is one of them. Arguably the most prized and rare ham in the world, jamn ibrico was not even available in the United States until 2007.Of the three classified categories of jamon, the finest is jamn ibrico de bellota (also called jamn ibrico de Montanera). To earn the classification, the pigs must roam freely in oak forests until the final year before slaughter when they are fed an exclusive diet of acorns, and the meat must be cured for 36 months. Executive Chef Richard Hinojosa of Vail's Larkspur Restaurant is serving this exceptional ham on his menu through the Easter holiday."The smooth texture and rich, savory flavor of jamn ibrico de bellota are unmatched by anything I have ever tried, and the amazing thing about it is the flavor is very, very long," Hinojosa said. He keeps his preparation simple, to highlight the meat's natural flavors. "Unlike a prosciutto, you want to make shorter slices of the meat, the flavor comes through more that way," he said. "We slice it, and serve it with housemade requesn (a mild, ricotta-like cheese) that we flavor with a hint of orange and black pepper, along with lightly toasted Marcona almonds and housemade breadsticks."
American bacon is always smoked, but pancetta, its Italian cousin, is usually unsmoked and dry cured. Michael Glennon, co-owner and executive chef of Edwards's Vista at Arrowhead, is so particular about the quality of his pancetta, he makes it himself. "It comes out better," he explained, "and you also know exactly what goes into it."What goes into Glennon's pancetta is a mixture of kosher salt, brown sugar, cracked peppercorns, ground nutmeg, crushed juniper berries, bay leaves, garlic and thyme. He sprinkles this generously on both sides of a pork belly, which he then cures in his walk-in for seven days, turning it every day to penetrate evenly on both sides. The meat is then rinsed, wrapped in cheesecloth, and dry-cured for another 7 or 8 days.When it's ready to prepare, it's sliced like bacon, pan-seared to cripsness, rendered and ground. Glennon serves his pancetta sprinkled on beet carpaccio, with micro greens, candied spiced pecans, aged ricotta, port wine and pomegranate vinaigrette.
The menu at Pepi's in Vail Village features classic Austrian dishes prepared with passion by executive chef Helmut Kaschitz, an Austrian native."In Austria, ham, pork, sausages are all hugely popular, both in the homes and on restaurant menus," Kaschitz said. "We just grew up with pork - you name it, pork was in it. When I came here 15 years ago, I saw it was just not that way in this country, but that has changed thoroughly, which is something I'm very happy about."What does Kaschitz love about the meat? "First of all, on a practical level, compared to the price of, say, veal, it's so much more affordable," he said. "But I also prefer the flavor of pork to veal. And as a chef, I love how versatile it is."A quick glance at the Pepi's lunch menu illustrates that last point: pork is served three different ways: Jager pork medallions, sauted in a wild mushroom sauce, served with sptzle and red cabbage; Schnitzel roasted pork loin, served with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and red cabbage; and pork bratwurst, served with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and red cabbage.And if you can't choose just one, Kaschitz offers The Farmer's Plate: an assortment of roast pork, smoked pork loin and pork sausages. Basically, a trifecta of savory, spicy, satisfying pork dishes.So if you're looking for an inspiring twist on tradition this Easter - or if you just want to rediscover the qualities you've always loved about ham and pork - you don't have to go far to find your savory bliss. You might even say it's just a hop away.Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com.