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When life throws you a ham, improvise

Recently, I defrosted around four to five pounds of raw ham, which I procured from a hog butchering class, and did not have a plan on what to make with it. I just took it out of the freezer and transferred it over to my refrigerator and went about my day. Normally I don’t initiate a cooking project without a plan, especially one involving a large amount of protein, but I just wasn’t thinking that day.

I mean what can you make with a cut of ham (leg) that isn’t, well, ham? I don’t own a smoker/grill, nor did I amply prepare for or research the painstaking process (so I’ve been told) for curing. I simply had a large chunk of thawed-out fleshy pork, and the clock was ticking. It didn’t even look like one of those big bulbous ham chunks; it was more like a two inch thick slab of steak. I wasn’t about to go cure or smoke a ham steak. If I do decide to one day, I’m going to get the whole ham with a leg and foot attached and invite everyone I know.

I may have not had a plan that day, but I would not/could not let that much piggy go to waste. So what did I do? As I stood there in my kitchen, I remembered a soup I had last year called hobo stew. The stew contained small cubes of beef, potatoes, macaroni noodles, lima beans, corn, tomatoes, and a host of other ingredients. It reminded me of a beef and vegetable stew, but with a lot more stuff thrown in. Everything in it melded well together, and I even remember having seconds.

Frankly, I never heard of hobo stew until that day. But when I looked it up in Wikipedia, its spirit sounded familiar. Also commonly known as “mulligan stew,” a nod to its Irish roots, it’s an “improvised dish said to have been prepared by American hobos in camps in the early 1900s.” The description continues, “[the] stew includes meat, potatoes, vegetables, and whatever else can be begged, scavenged, found or stolen.”

I certainly did not beg for or steal any additional ingredients, but I did improvise with whatever I could scavenge in my refrigerator and pantry. In my crisper I had carrots and celery. I also had onions and a little bit of garlic lying around. So with those items I plopped a Dutch oven on my stove and began a mirepoix sauté with a little olive oil and finished it with a healthy amount of cumin stirred in.

I then seasoned the ham steak with salt and pepper, scorched my cast iron skillet, lightly coated it with oil and browned the steak on both sides. I threw the steak in the Dutch oven with the mirepoix, added some chicken broth, deglazed my skillet with some dry white wine and added the resulting rich, brown elixir to the Dutch oven.

Thereafter, I just added whatever I could find to this gypsy, Mediterranean-inspired stew. Canned chickpeas? Sure why not. Chopped carrots, celery, onion, rehydrated porcini mushrooms and peppers followed, and then lastly, some more chicken stock and water.

I let the stew simmer stovetop for about an hour, and then I removed the ham and cut it up into manageable chunks, which I tossed back in. I brought my oven to 325 degrees, and cooked the stew (covered) for about six hours.

So after all that, how did it come out? The ham was fall apart tender, and the stew was full of deep, spicy flavors that permeated everything in it. And you know what? I even sopped it up with some heated corn tortillas that I also “scavenged.” It made for some decent tacos (don’t judge).

Improvisation pays off sometimes.

by Gene Lee, Food and More blog

14 comments Add your comment


September 28th, 2011
8:38 am

Making it up on the spur-of-the-moment is my favorite kind of cooking. Good job.

carla roqs

September 28th, 2011
8:42 am

i agree, and you used what you had on hand? cool beans.

johnny fontane

September 28th, 2011
8:42 am

My wife and I have very different cooking styles. I need a recipe and she can just find things in the pantry and throw together a great meal. She calls me a chef and call herself a cook. This sounds like something that she could pull off with not problem, I would have spent 2 hours on the internet looking for the perfect recipe and still would have to go to the store to get the one spice that I did not already have.


September 28th, 2011
8:52 am

Great display of creativity and resourcefullness there Gene. One other idea if you had it laying around would be to add would some dry white beans/Navy beans to the pot at the start (or canned navy/white beans later in the cooking process so they don’t get mushy).. Whenever I have a ham, the bones and scrap ham (along with any cut up leftover pieces) go in a pot with dry white beans to make Navy bean soup. Time for me to inventory the pantry and freezer and USE SOME THINGS UP before they expire rather than just always heading to the store for more provisions! Thanks

mikey d

September 28th, 2011
8:59 am

Bubb, i do agree, nothing like putting a meal together on the fly. my best creations and menu ideas come from spontaneous thoughts with provisions already on hand. BTW Gene, the ham stew looks so good, i think i wanna try making it.


September 28th, 2011
9:58 am

When life throws you ham, make rum ham. Obvs.


September 28th, 2011
10:17 am

How does one survive with a grill of some kind? A Webber Kettle of some size is a must have at my household.

Gene Lee

September 28th, 2011
11:38 am

@jennifer – It’s Always Sunny?? Bonus points!

@PTC Dawg – Condo building


September 28th, 2011
11:47 am


September 28th, 2011
12:42 pm

I expected to see a few comments debating whether curing a ham is really “painstaking.” I received a whole ham once at a hog butchering event like the one you attended and attempted to cure it. I had cured smaller cuts of meats, so I figured I was ready to try my skills on a whole ham. I was shooting for something prosciutto-like. I missed the mark by a long shot. It turned out more like a country ham–which is not surprising. Anyway, if there’s a point to my story it’s that curing a ham is not painstaking or especially difficult–it WILL cure if you follow some straightforward steps and have a little patience–but getting the results you want is another story.


September 28th, 2011
2:28 pm

Rule out that Condo for me. :)


September 29th, 2011
10:25 am

When life throws you ham, you must be Paula Deen.


September 29th, 2011
10:59 am



October 2nd, 2011
9:00 am

Kat….that is great wisdom on your behalf.Paula Deen would make cupcakes with that ham and add 3 sticks of butter.