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Ham It Up

5 simple ways to flavor the star of your holiday dinner

Aged Virginia Hams Hanging in Storage

Aged Virginia Hams Hanging in Storage — Karen Kasmauski/Corbis

Every holiday meal deserves a great centerpiece, a showstopper of an entrée, a main course dish that elicits "oohs" and "ahhs" from guests and makes everyone feel truly festive. At Christmastime, that dish is often a ham.

Coming from the thigh of the hind leg of a pig, a ham can take on any number of flavors and can be cured or uncured, smoked or not, with a bone or without. Most often, the ham you'll prepare on Christmas will already be cooked. If it's not, cooking a ham yourself is as simple as soaking it overnight in water and then gently boiling it before the final roasting, baking or whatever cooking method you choose.

Here to inspire you are five different hams, each prepared in its own way. You are sure to find at least one that will make your holiday meal an event to remember.

  • If this is your first time cooking a ham and you're looking for a simple, foolproof recipe, Lora Brody's Honey Baked Ham is the way to go. Start with a smoked, fully cooked ham and glaze it in an irresistible combination of apricot preserves, honey, Dijon mustard, soy sauce, orange juice, cloves and ginger, then pop it in the oven. It's that simple. And you will be able to make fabulous sandwiches with the leftovers.

  • For a slightly different flavor profile, think about combining some of those same ingredients — cinnamon, cloves, ginger, orange, brown sugar — with Pickapeppa sauce, pepper jelly and root beer. Yes, root beer is the key to Tom Fitzmorris' Root Beer-Glazed Ham recipe; it's what gives this ham a slightly sweet, mysteriously spiced flavor.

  • If you're from the South, then odds are your holiday ham will be a Virginia ham — a ham raised and cured in Virginia. The classic method for preparing a traditional Virginia ham is well detailed in Edna Lewis' Boiled Virginia Ham recipe. The trick in boiling this ham is changing the water regularly and moderating the water's boil. Serve the ham with biscuits, sweet potatoes and greens for a classic Southern dinner.

  • For a ham that looks as good as it tastes, Nigella Lawson's Aromatic Christmas Ham — studded with cloves; basted in red currant jelly, cinnamon and paprika; and baked to a ruby gold — is the ham that will get you in the Christmas mood. While Nigella calls for the ham to be served cold, it also may be served piping hot, with a whole host of sides.

  • Looking to do something really different? Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's Red-Cooked Fresh Ham and Chestnuts brings the flavors and methods of China to your Christmas table. "Red cooking" is a Chinese braising technique that mixes soy sauce, rice wine, star anise and other aromatic spices, and the long cooking of soy sauce gives the ham a distinctively red hue and rich flavor.

Do you have a favorite holiday ham recipe? We'd love to know. Share it in the comments section below. And happy holidays!

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