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A special bargain

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

"Nothing is cheap which is superfluous, for what one does not need, is dear at a penny." Plutarch

I'm trying to get back to the David's special meal thing once a week, so that I can have fun cooking something I've never cooked before. And so it was - American ham. Now there's a challenge. The Americans, like the English are not famous for their cooking are they? But dig deep and there are gems. So I tried to overcome reflex mild disappointment at such a prospect and started thinking.

But first we had to buy some ham. I was just going to buy a couple of ham steaks, or a small piece of ham, but no - David's eyes alighted on this and in spite of all my best efforts to dissuade him - mostly based around the "what am I going to do with all that ham - there's only two of us" argument - he prevailed. His argument was reinforced because the small pieces cost either $15.00 or $20.00 a kilo and this - now that he has done the calculation works out at $5.00 a kilo. What a bargain! A must have - well for him anyway.

"A bargain is something you don't need at a price you can't resist." Franklin Jones

Now I could resist this particular bargain pretty easily. Even at $20.00 a kilo the smaller pieces would have meant an outlay of somewhere between $10.00 and $15.00 with a bit of ham leftover for another day. A bit is OK. Good in fact, but here I have endless meals constructed around ham to contemplate. And it doesn't seem like that long ago that I had to do the same either. Besides it will take up lots of room in the fridge.

Moreover a largish chunk of the weight of that piece is that outside rind - a thick layer of fat no doubt, and also a bit of bone. I say a bit of bone, because this is not even a real actual piece of ham. It's picnic ham, which is sort of reconstituted bits and pieces without much bone. Certainly of rather poorer quality than the more expensive stuff anyway. I just hope it lasts long enough not to go off. For even ham eventually goes off, although truth to tell I have often wondered why as ham is by definition 'preserved pork' isn't it?

I must look into what you can do with ham rind.

Mind you, as I mock David a little for his enthusiastic bargain hunting, I recognise that I too am a bit the same - on a smaller scale. In the fresh food section if I see something marked down, I will carefully check it out to see if it is really no good, and then buy it. Well mostly I buy fresh food according to what is in season and therefore well-priced, or what is on a special. I don't buy anything of really poor quality though - like really, really squishy tomatoes. Slightly squishy big tomatoes are good though for all sorts of wonderful tomato dishes. But it is a very rare occurrence for me to buy a vegetable that is super expensive. Maybe for a very special meal. Indeed - more later - I did consider going back to the shops to buy a very expensive capsicum or two.

And one is constantly inundated, via email and catalogues in the letterbox, with the weekly specials, usually with this kind of thing - special in big bright letters, 'from' - implying a gift almost, and 'the Coles fresh team' - implying the friendly co-operative and keen atmosphere that exists at Coles itself. Photographs of quality fruit and vegetables, low prices - how can one resist?

We don't even have the excuse of being poor and therefore needing to look for bargains. We can easily afford the full price. The thing is, that at full price - and even then cheaper per kilo than the smaller pieces - I doubt that we would have been quite as tempted to buy this large piece of ham - but at about a third off, David just couldn't resist.

Why do we succumb? Apparently it's all to do with dopamine - "the thrill of feeling like they scored a big victory" says one Dr. Kit Yarrow on the website. In America there is a store called Target, which must be very low price because there is something called The Target effect, defined as

"the experience of going into a store for one item, being dazzled by the deals and emerging with much more than planned." Urban dictionary

And you know I probably do this every time I go into a supermarket. I might go in with a list - usually a very short one - and come out with a trolley full of stuff - mostly because it was a bargain - well at least on special. So I'm a sucker too. Not that it's a real problem for me, other than then having to use it all before it goes off, but if you have little money it is a real problem. It's almost like gambling isn't it? Because:

"even a discounted item costs more than the zero dollars that buying nothing costs ...

the experts recommend staying away from the bargain bin entirely, because even saving money can become an expensive habit if it gets out of hand."

But there is a more optimistic way of looking at bargain hunting:

"Bargain-hunting is the ultimate method for expanding your purchasing dollar, no matter what you're shopping for, and a terrific way to have fun while you're at it. Besides netting you a heck of a lot of good old capitalistic stuff, it also springs open the door to adventure, nourishes your creativity, and encourages recycling--one of the best ways to help our planet stay green." Rob and Terry Adams

And I'm sure my op shop expert friend fits into this category. It also explains in part the pleasure I gain from any kind of food shopping - clothes not so much for me - but books yes, although I'm more willing to pay full price there.

As for adventure and creativity, well that's what I'm dealing with today with this ham - and will be well into the near and middle future I think. How many ways can you cook ham?

Well if you are specifically looking at what the Americans do with ham - traditionally that is - not a lot it seems. Not unless you are going to bake and glaze the whole thing, and there are endless suggestions for glazes. But there are not many traditional ham dishes. There is one called Schnitz-un-gnepp (shown here), which is Pennnsylvania Dutch and not nearly as exciting as it sounds. Basically it's ham boiled with sugar and dried apples, finished off with dumplings. Sort of ugh!

That came from my American Hertitage Cookbook - one of the four purely American cookbooks that I own. The others are from the old Time/Life series and my two Bert Greene books, but none of them came up with anything other than various hashes. I even checked out Robert Carrier, but on ham he was mostly French.

Now there is jambalaya and Bon Appétit had a pretty appetising looking one. However there are two problems with this particular creole dish. One - it really should have prawns in it, and as we know this can't be done in our household. Now there are lots of other versions, some of them ham based, but I felt that I would be betraying the basic foundations of the dish somewhat. Anyway - two - it needed capsicum and some kind of sausage like chorizo if I was going to make a ham based one. I do not currently have any capsicum in my fridge, and it is not in season. So this would mean another journey to the shops - actually forbidden I think under the current COVID restrictions - and definitely not a bargain shop, not to mention the extra car miles. I did check with David, but he agreed that this would be silly.

Maybe I should have gone for a hamburger. You can put just about anything in a hamburger these days. And yes I found a ham and pineapple one - now there's something truly American. But I know that David would not have liked that. Besides I have no pineapple either fresh or in a tin.

So my final option from that now very old Penguin The American Heritage Cookbook, which is in itself based on an even older publication is Ham baked in maple syrup. At first I thought this was the whole baked ham thing, but no - it's a recipe for ham steaks baked in the oven with mustard, cider vinegar and maple syrup. A somehow very American mixture. David has given his approval with the proviso that it not be too sweet, which is interesting for someone with such a sweet tooth. My little Penguin book has no pictures, but I found these on the net - it seems to be a pretty common American dish, so I hope that it looks at least as good, if not better. The one on the right is from Jacques Pepin and uses tomato ketchup instead of the vinegar I think. To be honest they don't look that enticing, but maybe they will taste better than they look.

I think I'll serve them with a potato gratin and a salad. I did buy some corn - it was a bargain - but I don't think I'll use it today. Although I could use it in the gratin I suppose - adventure and creativity! And all pretty economical if not really a bargain.

"It’s not what I spent, it’s what I saved.”

$11.48 in this case. Which is about what I would have spent if I had bought a smaller piece and I would still have had some left over for at least one more meal.


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