Unsettling the table

With the advent of the fall semester, I find myself weighed on by two evils: illness and introductory courses. Some might take preventative approaches to the former with diligent handwashing, strength training or vitamin consumption, but I prefer a more reactionary and delicious approach. (Regrettably, the latter evil may only be tempered with a strong coffee and aggressive daydreaming.)
This week I treated myself to the kind of eastern-European fare for which good, piquant mustard was made: boiled, roasted ham hock. Between the farmers’ market, the Cackling Goose – hello, bulk spices! – and the liquor store, you’ll be able to source these ingredients with relative ease. For the hocks, you’ll probably have to check out the pork truck at the market.
Google tells me ham hock is called golonka in Polish. I might be retrofitting my memories to the present, but I think I’ve enjoyed it somewhere while visiting my dad’s family in Warsaw. Regardless, it’s a clever way to prepare a tough (and weird) cut of meat.
Typically after rinsing, one simmers the hock in just enough salted water to submerge. In addition to the hock, it’s wise to add some standard aromatics in generous amounts: bay leaf, whole black pepper, chunks of onion and carrot, and fresh parsley. You’ll find that these, along with the marrow, flavour what will become the broth.
In true Thursday-night spirit, I added a can of beer – less a few sips – to the water before boiling. A good, roasty pale ale seemed to work fine.
With everything in place, bring the water to a boil, cover, then drop the heat, letting the knuckles simmer for at least enough time to do your most neglected reading (90 minutes, say). Remove the hocks and let them dry a bit while you fire up the oven to 400 C. If you score the fat, you’ll find yourself with more of that spirit-healing crackling that makes autumn illnesses bearable. Roast the hocks until they look thoroughly crisped, around 30 minutes. Then, rest your steamy meat chunks before diving in. I’ve heard it’s good practice, if for nothing more than exciting the appetite.
Two final points should be made. First, rye bread and boiled, buttered potatoes are fine complements to this meal. If you care about nutrition, I’d recommend throwing some vegetables in with the pork, but that’s up to you. Second: Throwing out your broth would be a sin against flavour. Bone broth is highly nutritious and generally incomparable in merits to the foil-wrapped salt cube we call bouillon. Keep the broth chilled for a while; I’ll be sure to use mine in next week’s preparation. Skim off the fat, and don’t freak out it if it gelatinizes.

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