Originally created 03/31/04

Small portions

Spring greens

The arrival of baby greens in markets is a sure sign that spring is finally here. Shoots of tender dandelion, arugula, new spinach or Bibb lettuce should prompt cooks to put aside hearty winter recipes in favor of lighter fare.

Simple salads of spring greens tossed with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil are an easy, direct way to enjoy the first of the new season's vegetables. Mature greens, particularly dandelion, can get bitter, so it's best to enjoy these greens now, when they are young, tender and have less bite. Wilting any of these greens in a hot pan with a splash of oil and a hint of new garlic makes for a tasty side or a quick topping for pasta.

Just remember: What looks like a mountain of greens will cook up to a reasonable portion for four. Don't assume that cooking tender Bibb lettuce spoils these delicate greens. They take on a whole self-assured quality when cooked, and are particularly delicious lightly braised in chicken broth with fresh spring peas and mint.

Hamming it up

Not all hams are created equal, and choosing the right one to put at the center of the holiday table can be a challenge.

There are two curing styles of hams - country and city. Traditional country hams, such as the famous Smithfield, are dry-cured with salt and sugar, then smoked and aged. The result can be intensely salty but full of flavor. These hams require a protracted regimen of soaking and simmering to purge their salty cure before serving.

Most folks today prefer the convenience and milder taste of wet-brine-cured city hams. Brine with flavorings and nitrates for preserving are injected into these hams for a speedy cure. Some hams are smoked; others get their woody aroma from added flavorings, such as liquid smoke.

"Ham with natural juices" have 7 percent to 8 percent added water, and are your best option for a firm, meaty ham. Less satisfying choices include "ham water added" with up to 15 percent water, and the highly saturated "ham and water product" with more than 15 percent water.

For special occasions, go for the ham with a bone. Such hams taste better than pressed and re-formed hams. Whole hams can be hefty, up to 18 pounds, but some of that weight is bone, so figure about 10 ounces per person. Half-hams, either the shank or butt end, range in size from 5 to 8 pounds, perfect for a smaller crowd. The rounded butt may look meatier than the shank, but it contains the large aitch bone, which makes it slightly more difficult to carve. The shank is less expensive, and has a bit more bone to meat than the butt (a boon if you like bones for soup), but has delicious meat.

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