For many, ham is an easy choice for Easter dinner.
"Most people do a traditional ham," said Robert L. Payne II, an instructor at Schenectady County Community College's School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism and a certified executive chef. "They'll coat it with brown sugar and some pineapple, put a little water in the pan and throw it in the oven."
Payne and other culinary experts say home chefs can add extra flavors that their guests will taste and toast next Sunday.
Payne said his mother taught him water should never be used in the roasting pan during the cooking process. Other options add more flavor.
"She always taught me to use ginger ale," Payne said. "She felt it helped pull out the salt. I don't know if it's true, but it gives you a great flavor profiling."
Champagne can also be used for a cooking liquid.
Payne likes to cover his hams with a homemade "paste" that incorporates fruity and spicy flavors. He likes one paste that uses molasses, brown sugar and stone ground mustard or Dijon mustard.
"If you don't have molasses, even if you don't have brown sugar, substitute maple syrup if you have it in the fridge," Payne said. "I'll make a paste. I'll put a little cinnamon and some cloves into the ham and then what I'll do is slice oranges and attach them to the ham. A lot of people will use pineapple. The oranges give a little twist to it."
Orange marmalade can be used in another paste, along with fresh grated ginger.
"I'll chop up some cherries and add them to the marmalade and fresh ginger than take a can of crushed pineapples and mix them all together," Payne said. "I'll end up scoring the ham first - I think scoring any ham is really, really important - then I'll put that mixture on top.
"If I'm doing an orange marmalade," Payne added, "I use a can of pineapple juice in the roasting pan. I'll squirt honey over everything throw it in and roast it."
Payne cautions people about overcooking their hams. He said there's no reason to set ovens to 400 or 425 degrees. That's too hot.
The chef believes the secret to a moist, glazed ham is roasting at 325 to 350 degrees. "I was always taught the rule of thumb is cooking six to eight minutes per pound is ideal," Payne said, adding many hams on the market are already pre-cooked and pre-smoked.
Matt Leahy, general manager of the HoneyBaked Ham Co. in Colonie, expects his store - one of 300 HoneyBaked places across the country - will sell about 1,000 hams for the Easter holiday.
"Christmas is busier," Leahy said, adding people will serve ham for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and during the December party season.
Philomena Aceto, a Schenectady professional chef and a culinary consultant, also believes a homemade glaze gives her Easter ham extra flavor (see recipe at end of story).
Her mix is brown sugar, butter, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a small amount of cloves. "A little bit of cloves goes a long way," Aceto said. "I warm it up in the pan and go over the ham with a pastry brush or a barbecue brush."
She also makes sure the main dish is served with a homemade sauce.
"It's made with mustard - ham and mustard really go well together," Aceto said. "Dijon mustard, shallots, white wine and butter. Of course it has butter. I've taught this in many, many cooking classes. It's also great on chicken and it's great on beef."
Aceteo likes to put a strong supporting cast on her Easter dinner table.
"I always do au gratin potatoes," she said. "A lot of people will do mashed potatoes for a ham dinner, but I think it's the cheese. When you think about ham, what's a good sandwich? You think ham and cheddar and mustard. It's like a perfect palate combination. I never do one without the other."
Fresh green beans, served with a vinaigrette, fresh mint, basil and garlic, will make her list. So will glazed carrots. "They go really well with ham and that's an easy dish to make as well," she said.
Payne said asparagus can be considered for Easter - and not just steamed, blanched or boiled asparagus.
"Do a twist," he said. "Cut the woody section off the end and roast it with a little olive oil, some kosher salt, a little crushed ground pepper. Toss it, put them on a baking sheet and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 15, 20 minutes. It's a beautiful way to so asparagus."
Payne also likes stuffed artichoke hearts for Easter. And he loves Brussels sprouts - "They are huge right now, even on menus - and cabbage.
"When people think about cabbage, they think about corned beef and cabbage," Payne said. "On Easter, my mom is Polish, so we do the kapusta - the cabbage, the breakfast sausage, the apples, the caraway seeds."
There are other options for the main platter. Aceto said some people always serve turkey at their holiday gatherings.
"A lot of my friends do lamb for Easter," she said. "I can't tell you anything about lamb because I don't like it. And I have a friend who is doing a beef tenderloin because nobody likes ham."
An Easter dinner - regardless of the main dish - should be good for the chef and good for the chef's guests.
"Make something you know you can cook well and the people who are coming are going to enjoy it," Aceto said."
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]
Philomena Aceto's sauce for ham
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup whipping creme
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pinch of sugar
Saute shallots in butter until softened, add wine and reduce by half, stir in mustard and add creme slowly whipping in gently.
Add salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of sugar, chopped herbs can also be added. I usually double the recipe.
"It's delish," Aceto said.