Ham and Beer-Eye Gravy Is Both Inevitable and Ingenious
For those of you who, like Chicago-born me, long thought of ham and redeye gravy as something you might have heard a scruffy gent named Cookie offer up to the cowhands in an old western movie, and not actual in-real-life food, let me share the good news: It is real, and it is delicious. It's also ridiculously simple to make.
Take a large ham steak, preferably country ham, but regular will do (one in, naturally), fry it up in a cast-iron skillet till the fat has rendered and there is a nice caramelization on it. Remove it to a plate to be kept warm while a cupful of strong black coffee is added to the pan, deglazing all the little brown bits on the bottom, melding with the ham fat and juices, and reducing slightly to make a sauce, which is then poured over the ham, to be served with biscuits for sopping or making little sandwiches. It's the perfect simple breakfast pick-you-up, with fat and caffeine in one fell swoop.
You might think it got its name for being something of a hangover cure (one legend has it that a hungover Andrew Jackson asked his cook for a gravy "as red as the cook's eyes") because if you wake up with red eyes in need of coffee and protein, this dish has it all. That may or may not be true, but it's much more likely called redeye gravy because it never really emulsifies, not having any flour or thickener added, so when you pour it in a bowl it separates into a layer of fat and a layer of reddish brown juices, looking like a red eye in your bowl. Yeah, I know, not nearly as cool, or frankly, as appetizing.
Last weekend, a homebrewing pal gave us two bottles of his latest batch, a coffee stout. The coffee part got me wondering: If redeye gravy was just black coffee deglazing a pan in which ham had been cooked, the bitterness offsetting the saltiness of the ham, what about beereye gravy? Stout is known for its deep dark bitter notes, often reminiscent of coffee or chocolate, and now even macro-brewers are making specifically “coffee” stout. Could beer-eye gravy be a good thing?
Yes. Yes it could.
The coffee stout brings all the same things to the party that coffee does, all the dark bitterness, but it also has that malty complexity that really enhances the ham. Just imagine a cold Guinness served alongside a ham sandwich and you’ll start to understand how it all works together.
The process couldn’t be easier. Sear off a large bone-in ham steak in a cast-iron skillet, until the fat has rendered and the meat is hot and has some good browning on it. Remove to a plate and pour in one bottle of coffee stout (or regular old stout if you can’t find coffee stout), and let the mixture bubble away over medium high heat, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pan, and letting the mix reduce by about half. This will cook off the alcohol and thicken the mixture slightly. You still want it pretty liquid, not a glaze, but a sop.
Pour the gravy over the ham steak and serve with biscuits to be traditional, or the toast of your choice. My husband likes to dunk each half of a biscuit into the gravy and then make a little sandwich.
And while traditional redeye gravy may or may not be a hangover cure, I think beer-eye gravy might see the situation a little more clearly.