Momofuku, via The New York Times
There was a time when the thought of serving dinner for 16 would have scared the daylights out of us.
But that's just the challenge we faced last weekend, when through a series of circumstances we ended up hosting a large group of our friends for dinner (well, part of a dinner, but more on that below).
We needed a dish that would easily serve a group on a Saturday night, and we didn't want to spend all day in the kitchen.
We decided to go with this Bo Ssam served with two sauces, a Ssam Sauce and a Garlic-Scallion Sauce.
Bittens, are you sitting down?
We hope so, because this dish is about to BLOW. YOUR. MINDS.
This dish is, in a word, epic.
We first read about this dish back in January 2012 in The New York Times Sunday magazine. It's a recipe from Korean chef and mini-mogul David Chang, of the Momofuku empire. The recipe sounded so delicious that we immediately cut it out and slapped it up on the fridge, planning to make it at some point in the next few weeks. Well, weeks became months became more than a year, and we still hadn't made it. The right occasion just never seemed to present itself. But we knew this bo ssam was in our future.
Why were we so sure? Allow us to quote the Times:
What is necessary: close attention to the final disposition of the pork itself, when you return it to the oven to build its crust. “Once that last bit of sugar and salt is on there and the meat is back in a hot oven,” Chang says, “you want to watch it carefully. You’re not looking for a color so much as for the moment when the fat and the skin begins to fluff up a little. It’s not so much about the sugar caramelizing as it is about the fat starting to bubble.”
When that happens — Chang calls it the soufflé effect — you are ready to go. The meat should look roughly like a deflated and yet strangely attractive football.
Chang served bo ssam at his new restaurant in Australia recently. “We put a lot of sugar on the meat at the end,” he says, “and served it like a pork petit four.” Most of the diners had eaten a full tasting menu already, so Chang did not think people would really eat the ssam. It was almost abusive, he felt: “People were full, you know, they’d eaten like 10 courses already.”
But then he looked out at the dining room. The ssams were being taken apart as if by frenzied animals. “People were just housing them,” Chang said. “They smell it and they look at it and they just go crazy.”
Chang, you had us at "fat starting to bubble."
That's the key to this bo ssam: The pork is fall-apart tender on the inside, but it has this ridiculously delicious crunchy sweet-salty crust on the outside.
So we were sold on making the bo ssam (which, by the way, simply refers to a Korean dish of meat wrapped in lettuce leaves, with other accompaniments). But when?
The perfect occasion presented itself last weekend: We'd gotten drunkenly roped into politely asked to join in a neighborhood progressive dinner. It was 14 of our friends, stopping at three places over the course of an evening: Ken and Jeff hosted for cocktails and apps, Chez Bitten Word would serve the main course. And then our friend Reilly-Ann would round out the evening with desserts and coffee. So fun!
So, the prep: On Friday night, we packed the pork in salt and sugar. Saturday morning about 10:30, we threw the pork in the oven. (The recipe calls for cooking the pork for six hours, but opted for eight hours since we were tripling the recipe, assuming that more oven time wouldn't hurt.) Per the recipe, we basted every hour, or thereabouts.
We cleaned the house. We went to the gym. We went and met a friend for coffee. The pork kept cooking.
Meanwhile we made the sauces.They're both very easy and straightforward. One is a simple mix of green onions, ginger and oil. The other has a fermented bean and chili paste base.
Serving an entree at a progressive dinner is actually a little tricky -- you've got to have something that's prepped enough in advance that you can go to another house for the first course and still be able to serve your entree when everybody shows up. This bo ssam was perfect: Zach scooted out of Ken and Jeff's place about 20 minutes early, came home and cranked the oven up to 500 for the final 15 minutes of the cook time, when the pork really gets its amazing shellacked sugar crust.
Everyone arrived from Ken and Jeff's, we set out the lettuce along with all the condiments and accoutrements -- along with plenty of napkins -- and people started digging in.
It all started politely enough, with each person building his or her own little lettuce wraps.
But 30 minutes later, we were all ripping at the pork with our bare hands, dipping it in the sauces and lapping it up. It's insanely addictive.
Oh, and those sauces! The Ssam Sauce is earthy and savory and fermented and dark and crazy good. But the Ginger-Scallion Sauce? You will be climbing across the table to swat it out of someone's hand, just to make sure there's a spoonful left for you. (It's good, is what we're saying.)
And the accoutrements? David Chang suggests serving this with oysters for a textural contrast; we opted against that for ours. Here's what we had on the table for people to build into their lettuce wraps:
- Ssam Sauce
- Ginger-Scallion Sauce
- Ssamjang bean-and-chili paste (It's an ingredient in the Ssam Sauce, but we served it on its own as well)
- Sriracha (yeah, it's Thai instead of Korean. Sue us.)
- Bread-and-butter pickles (hand-canned by Zach's mom!)
- Pickled watermelon rind (canned by us, and a surprisingly delicious addition to this pork)
- Fresh cilantro
Look, we don't want to belabor the point here, but the final product was absolutely out of this world.
Grown men wept.
It's truly one of the best things we've served in a long time.
And you wanna know the really crazy part? The part you cannot tell anyone when you serve this? It's so easy! Sure, the pork takes a long time to cook, but it's totally hands-off cooking (see above re: gym going and house cleaning). And the pork itself requires all of four ingredients, three of which you already have in your pantry.
You need need need to find a reason to make this. Make it a fun family dinner night! Invite your friends over! Have your own progressive dinner! Whatever it takes.
Just trust us: You need to have this bo ssam in your life.
Bo Ssam with Ssam Sauce and Garlic-Scallion Sauce
adapted from Momofuku, recipe via The New York Times
Serves 6 to 10
NOTES FROM ZACH AND CLAY OF THE BITTEN WORD
- We tried to find ssamjang (fermented bean-and-chili paste) at a number of places, including an Asian market near our house, but we had no luck. We ended up ordering it from Amazon (3 tubs for $15 -- we plan to use 2 tubs and give the third away to a friend).
- For the chili paste (referred to as kochujang in the recipe), we used the basic Huey Fong chili paste that is available at every supermarket in our area.
- For our accompaniments, we chose ssamjang bean-and-chili paste (It's an ingredient in the Ssam Sauce, but we served it on its own as well), rice, kimchi, sriracha, bread-and-butter-pickles, pickled watermelon rind (you may find this at supermarkets) and fresh cilantro.
- We tried a test-run of this bo ssam a couple weeks in advance when we had our friends Regi and Kate over for dinner. The result was okay, but we had made two crucial missteps that left the pork almost too salty to eat (and we are salt fiends). Don't do what we did and try to substitute regular salt for kosher salt. Huge mistake. Also, after you've packed the pork in salt and sugar overnight, don't scoop up the sugar-salt mixture and actively rub it into the pork. Also a huge mistake. We've inserted a note at this crucial step below.
1 whole bone-in pork butt or picnic ham (8 to 10 pounds)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
7 tablespoons brown sugar
2½ cups thinly sliced scallions, both green and white parts
½ cup peeled, minced fresh ginger
¼ cup neutral oil (like grapeseed)
1½ teaspoons light soy sauce
1 scant teaspoon sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons fermented bean-and- chili paste (ssamjang, available in many Asian markets, and online)
1 tablespoon chili paste (kochujang, available in many Asian markets, and online)
½ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup neutral oil (like grapeseed)
2 cups plain white rice, cooked
3 heads bibb lettuce, leaves separated, washed and dried
1 dozen or more fresh oysters (optional)
Kimchi (available in many Asian markets, and online)
1. Place the pork in a large, shallow bowl. Mix the white sugar and 1 cup of the salt together in another bowl, then rub the mixture all over the meat. Cover it with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
2. When you’re ready to cook, heat oven to 300. Remove pork from refrigerator and discard any juices. [Note from The Bitten Word: At this point, also discard any excess salt and sugar that's on the pork. Just wipe it away with your hands, leaving it behind in the bowl.] Place the pork in a roasting pan and set in the oven and cook for approximately 6 hours, or until it collapses, yielding easily to the tines of a fork. (After the first hour, baste hourly with pan juices.) At this point, you may remove the meat from the oven and allow it to rest for up to an hour.
3. Meanwhile, make the ginger-scallion sauce. In a large bowl, combine the scallions with the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and taste, adding salt if needed.
4. Make the ssam sauce. In a medium bowl, combine the chili pastes with the vinegar and oil, and mix well.
5. Prepare rice, wash lettuce and, if using, shuck the oysters. Put kimchi and sauces into serving bowls.6. When your accompaniments are prepared and you are ready to serve the food, turn oven to 500. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining tablespoon of salt with the brown sugar. Rub this mixture all over the cooked pork. Place in oven for approximately 10 to 15 minutes, or until a dark caramel crust has developed on the meat. Serve hot, with the accompaniments.