Ham hocks and fried green tomatoes

(Rosalie Harrington)

“A ham hock or pork knuckle is the joint between the tibia/fibula and the metatarsals of the foot of a pig, where the foot was attached to the hog‘s leg.

Grandmommy from Mississippi raised her own pigs.  Every part of the animal was used and eaten in some delicious treatment, but the most memorable for me was the dish she made with smoked ham hocks.  When simmered in a broth that contained peppers, onions, garlic, bay leaves and a little rum, if available, the smokiness imparted the most luscious of flavors. And the aroma of the hocks simmering on her wood burning stove is something I will always remember.  After several hours the flavors became ”married” with the rice and black-eyed peas which were added to the hocks at the halfway point. When finished cooking they were topped with her golden corn sticks and more roughly chopped fresh vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cukes,  string beans, whatever was in the garden.  It was the epitome of crunch and freshness. Tabasco sauce was served on the side, as I recall.

My Italian grandmother, meanwhile, loved to praise her own style of homemaking.  “Waste not, want not,” was a mantra that she lived by, and with 10 children, making use of every morsel was an imperative.  Although she raised her own vegetables and canned many items, Noni loved cooking something called “Gogatha.”  Using the lining of the pig’s stomach which she treated like a “braccola,” which she stuffed with fresh herbs, garlic, and Parmesan cheese, then rolled and tied it with string. The aroma that wafted through the house as it simmered in tomato sauce was heavenly.  

When my mother got together with Auntie Joe — or with any of her sisters — for a card game, the conversation invariably leaned toward food.  “Remember when Ma made the (blank) with the (blank)?”  Every one of the aunts had a different memory of how my Noni made a particular dish, and these conversations would often end in a dispute that could become quite heated. They did agree on one thing, however — that their mother was a good cook and she used everything, nothing was wasted.  

This time of the year, before the frost as the last tomatoes were clinging for life in the garden, Noni would gather baskets of them. The tomatoes would be dropped into boiling water until the skin blistered and then, using a food mill, she would separate the skin and the seeds, which she would then discard.  The tomatoes would be picked over carefully (a bad tomato will ruin the whole  batch) and placed in the biggest iron pan and simmered for a long time.  Noni called it her tomato paste.  There was always a jar of it handy in the fridge to give soups and sauces that extra “kick.”  It lasted for weeks.  Today we can buy a tube of tomato paste on the grocer’s shelves.  None of it comes close to my grandmother’s.  Perhaps it is the small batches, the quality homegrown ingredients, or the passionate dedication with which it was prepared?

My friends are very generous with their gardens.  The green tomato jam that I love to make is a favorite with many of my friends.  Hoping that their generosity will yield them a jar, I have started to collect green tomatoes from their gardens.  I will wait until I have a bushel or so and then I will make my jam.  Two years ago I was invited to cook in a tribute to Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine, who was releasing a new book.  A friend who was her publisher had tasted my eggs stuffed with green tomato jam and asked if I could make them for the book party.  They were a big hit.  All that is needed is good friends who don’t know what else to do with a threatening frost in the garden except to pass them off to a friend who does know what to do with them.  And I love making jam and enjoy the reward of the compliments that those simple stuffed eggs, a zippier treatment of what are called “deviled eggs,”  reaps.

Grandmommy made fried green tomatoes which were delicious.  She would take good half inch slices of the biggest green tomatoes and dip them into buttermilk whisked with eggs, then in cornmeal and back in the buttermilk and again into the cornmeal before frying them in lard.  I can’t even bear to think of the damage that the lard did to my body, but that lard did make the best fried chicken, cobblers, and fried green tomatoes.  This time of year I like to make breakfast sandwiches with a fried egg, ham or bacon, a nice soft cheese and top it with a  big slice of fried green tomato.

Tomatoes with Ham Hocks       

Cut up two carrots, a half of a red onion and two sticks of celery into small dice.  Add three cloves of garlic peeled and not too finely chopped in case someone doesn’t appreciate this wonderful flavor they can discard it.  

In a heavy bottomed pan add a few tablespoons of olive oil and saute the veggies for a few minutes.  Cut up four good sized ripe tomatoes and add to the pot.  

Simmer over medium heat with a sprig each of rosemary and thyme.  Cover the pan and cook for ten minutes.  

Add two cups of chicken or beef or vegetable broth, return to heat.  In the meantime wash two medium size ham hocks and pat dry with paper towels.  Add to the pan and cover it.  The broth should just about cover the hocks. If not add a little more broth or some red or white wine is nice too.  

Simmer for a few hours, every now and then scrape off the foam that accumulates and discard it.  Add a little more broth if needed.  No salt is required.  

When you are ready to eat wash and drain a can of cannelloni beans and cook a half pound of rotini or your favorite  pasta.  

Remove the meat to a platter and using two forks, pull the meat off the bones.  Serve with a good ladle of the delicious broth, a crusty bread and pass the Parmesan.  Both my grandmothers can be toasted for this dish.

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