In recent years I’ve baked a ham for Christmas Eve, and my son-in-law has deep-fried two turkeys for Christmas dinner. I have loved relaxing at their house on Christmas day, having shouldered many holidays at mine.

I also serve gumbo and other food on Christmas Eve, but the ham is the star of the table. Surprisingly, it’s about the easiest thing a person can cook. A friend once told me that cooking large pieces of meat is the simplest way to feed a crowd – and she was right. I have discovered that the less fuss over a ham, the better. The secret: buying a whole ham.

There is something about the entire bone-in ham, leg of lamb, pork shoulder or whole turkey, chicken and duck that’s superior to deboned, smaller pieces. Moisture is lost when cut, and meat near the bone is succulent.

Pre-cut spiral-sliced hams are tempting for holidays but also quite expensive. Slicing a ham is so easy that I prefer to avoid the big price, sharpen a good knife and carve it up at serving time. Another friend of mine lights her whole ham with bourbon and presents it flaming at the table. I love the drama, but I’d sure hate to burn down the dining room.

Young, inexperienced cooks may not be aware that a whole ham from the supermarket is already cooked. We are talking about the wet-cured whole hams available mostly at holiday time. You could eat it as it is, but to heat it through with brown sugar oozing is the ultimate taste sensation. Never is ham so delicious as an hour or so after it comes out of the oven. I still use the old technique of my mother’s: Simply pack brown sugar all over and around the ham and bake it for two to three hours, basting it with drippings.

Anything from potato salad to braised Belgian endive goes with ham, so finding the right sides is a no-brainer. A dressing is festive, especially when it’s made of eggplant and seafood – one of south Louisiana’s great contributions to fine dining. Carb lovers dominate our table, so two kinds of potatoes are always welcome. With turkey we absolutely must have mashed potatoes, but a sweet potato casserole demands equal attention. Ham, too, screams for sweet potatoes. But then again, onions and white russet or red potatoes in a creamy sauce accents ham perfectly.

This year, I’d like to bake my ham against the backdrop of, yes, two kinds of potatoes – because I can’t eliminate one – and a terrific eggplant and shrimp casserole, spiked with Italian sausage.

When all the ham is gone by New Year’s, my next good meal will be on top of the stove: black-eyed peas, cooked with my leftover ham bones to bring me good luck next year. With a whole ham, there’s enough bone for the cabbage, too, and who can’t use a little extra money in 2011?

Easy Baked Whole Ham
1 12- to 15-pound whole ham
2 cups brown sugar
Dried whole cloves (optional)

Cut away any tough skin remaining on the ham, leaving a layer of fat. Score the fat in a diamond pattern all over the ham. Place whole cloves, if wanted, in the center of the diamonds.

Clear the oven of all but the lower rack. Preheat to 350 degrees. About 3 to 4 hours before serving, place ham in oven. After the first hour, baste the ham well with drippings. Then baste every 30 minutes thereafter. Bake the ham for 2 to 3 hours, about 10 minutes per pound. You are basically heating the ham and browning the outside. Set ham on a platter to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

To carve the ham, begin at the large end and slice with a sharp, heavy knife across the width of the ham.

Serves 25.

Baked Eggplant with Shrimp and Italian Sausage
1 large or 2 small eggplants
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced
1 Tablespoon dried Italian
Salt, freshly ground black
  pepper and cayenne pepper
  to taste
1 1/2 pounds small to
  medium shrimp
3 links Italian sausage,
  about 1/2-pound
1 slice white bread, torn in
  pieces and soaked in 1/2
  cup water
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Parmesan, plus more
  for topping
1/4 cup Italian seasoned bread
  crumbs, plus more for topping
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh
  flat-leaf parsley
2 Tablespoons butter, cut
  into dots

Peel eggplants and chop into small cubes.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot. Sauté onion, celery and bell pepper until soft. Add garlic and sauté a minute more. Add tomatoes, seasonings and eggplant; cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and devein shrimp. Remove Italian sausage from casings and brown, breaking apart, in a small skillet. Set aside.

After 30 minutes of simmering the eggplant, add shrimp and sausage and simmer until shrimp turn pink. Remove from heat and add bread with water, eggs, Parmesan and breadcrumbs. Mix thoroughly and turn out into a large baking dish. Sprinkle top lightly with breadcrumbs, then lightly with Parmesan and dot with butter.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.

Serves 8.

Whipped Gingered Sweet Potatoes
4 sweet potatoes
Fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup whole milk
2 eggs
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup Steen’s pure
  cane syrup

Place sweet potatoes in a medium pot, cover with water and boil until fork tender. When cool enough to handle, peel and cream in an electric mixer.

Peel and grate ginger until you have 2 Tablespoons. Add to sweet potatoes along with remaining ingredients. Whip until smooth and turn into a medium baking dish. Bake in a 350-degree preheated oven until puffy – about 45 minutes. If you want a browner top, brown under the broiler for a minute or two.

Serves 8 to 10.

Creamy Pearl Onions and Potatoes
1 14-ounce package frozen
  pearl onions
3 medium russet or red
  potatoes, about 1 pound
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons all-purpose
2 cups whole milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Fresh parsley for garnish

Let onions thaw for about 15 minutes. Peel and cut potatoes into 1-inch cubes.

In a medium saucepan, cover potatoes with water, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low and cook for about 8 minutes. Add onions, cover and continue cooking over medium heat for about 12 minutes, or until both are fork tender but not overcooked. Drain and leave in pot.

Make a cream sauce by melting butter in small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in flour, mixing well. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly, until smooth. Add seasonings. Return to low heat and heat, stirring constantly, until sauce begins to thicken. Do not boil. Sauce is ready when the first small bubbles form around the sides. Pour over onions and potatoes and mix gently.

When ready to serve, warm gently, being careful not to overheat. Take up in a pretty bowl and sprinkle with a little chopped parsley and a light sprinkling of nutmeg, if desired.

Serves 6 to 8.

Cajun Green Peas and Mushrooms
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup flour
3 cups water
1 medium onion, chopped
1 32-ounce package frozen
  green peas
1 8-ounce carton fresh
  mushrooms, sliced
Salt and freshly ground
  pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

Heat the oil in a medium sauce pan. Add flour and make a peanut butter-colored roux, stirring constantly over medium heat. Add onions, reduce heat and cook until onions are soft. Gradually add water, then remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until peas are just done, about 8 minutes.

Serves 10 to 12.

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