Little Bo Ssam

We miss having people over. We mostly miss simply being with our friends, but we also keenly feel the loss of the ability to show affection in the manner we’re most accustomed to: sharing food and drink that we’ve made with them in mind. True, we’ve porch-dropped drinks and safe-distanced lasagne to friends on our side of the city, but it’s not the same.

Still, the heart wants what it wants, and taste memories are powerfully evocative of better times. So tonight we made a scaled-down version of one of our very favourite large-format dinner party dishes: the justifiably famous Momofuku Bo Ssam.

Hopefully, someone you love has made this for you already. It’s been around the block a few times. To recap: it’s a big chunk of pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) that’s been dry-cured in salt and sugar, coaxed into tenderness in a slow oven, glazed under intense heat, then served with an array of Korean-inspired condiments, raw oysters, sticky short-grain rice, and lettuce leaves as the vehicle to transport the morsels to your mouth. At the table, it’s urgent eating: the juxtaposition of hot and cold elements is best enjoyed immediately. It’s messy, it’s riotously flavourful, and it draws you somehow closer to those with whom you share it… even as the conversation is reduced to exchanges of primal grunts.

Normally, you’d make it for 6-8 people, using a big, 8-10 lb. bone-in pork shoulder. (At Momofuku, they’ll sell it to you for take-out, minus the oysters, for $275 USD. You can do better than that even with a shmancy shoulder cut from organic heritage pork.)

I scaled the recipe down to the 4 lb. boneless cut of heritage pork shoulder we had in the freezer. Having defrosted that, I coated it generously in a 2:1 mixture of kosher salt and white sugar (maybe 1 C total), and let it hang out, covered, in the fridge overnight. The next day, I rubbed off the excess cure and put the roast on a rack over a foil-lined roasting pan. (The sugary cure means that the juices exuded during roasting are susceptible to scorching, so you definitely want foil protecting your pan.) Since we didn’t buy it with this dish in mind, our cut of pork had been trimmed of most of its fat, which left its top surface vulnerable to overcooking. We had some pork rind on hand, so I Frankensteined that on top to protect and baste the meat.

That went into the oven about 6 hours ahead of dinner-time. I cooked it using convection at 275’F, a lower temperature than the usual 300’F given that I was roasting such a small chunk of shoulder and wanted to avoid drying it out before its collagen and interstitial fat had a chance to render into the meat.

Then it was on to the real fun: the condiments. First up was a ginger-scallion sauce. I took the white and light green parts of 8 scallions, cut them into lengthwise ribbons with our handy negi cutter, and sliced the ribbons crosswise to end up with a cup or so of minced scallion.

I then peeled about 8 oz. of ginger root and ran it through a Microplane grater. I mixed this with 2 Tbsp of neutral oil, 1 Tbsp sherry vinegar, 1 tsp light soy sauce (I had some of this amazing white Matsutake mushroom-flavoured soy sauce on hand), and a half tsp of kosher salt.

The next two condiments were even easier. They employed three items that are always in our fridge-pantry: ssamjang bean paste, gochujang hot pepper paste, and kimchi. Please note that these last for months and months beyond their “best before” dates. I’ve never known ssamjang or gochujang to go off, and kimchi’s expiry date is determined solely by the tolerance of your taste buds and olfactory synapses. So don’t hesitate to add them to your pantry. You’ll find uses for them… any or all of them will instantly upgrade your bowl of instant ramen.

For the ssam sauce, I found a little Mason jar and loaded it up with 2 Tbsp ssamjang, 1 Tbsp gochujang, 1 Tbsp water, 2 Tbsp neutral oil, and 2 Tbsp sherry vinegar. (My version of ssam sauce is much rounder and less vinaigrette-y than that of Momofuku.) A few shakes, and that was done.

Finally, I used our little immersion blender food processor attachment to make a rough puree of 1/4 C kimchi and 2 Tbsp fish sauce.

For the rest of the afternoon, the sauces mellowed out and the pork roasted, unattended, until the probe thermometer read 205’F.

I then took it out of the oven and rested it for an hour while I heated the oven up to 500’F and prepped the rest of the meal: steamed sushi rice, shucked oysters, and crisp lengths of romaine lettuce.

Yes, we have a stainless steel chainmail glove for oyster shucking, because shucking usually happens alongside a glass of wine, and nothing ruins a party like a trip to the E.R., pandemic or not.

The penultimate step was to glaze and crisp the pork shoulder. I removed the protective skin shell, and anointed the roast with 1/2 C of dark brown sugar microwaved for 30 seconds with 2 Tbsp cider vinegar. I then placed the roasting pan on the bottom rack of the oven, which I set to broil. I watched this diligently, waiting for just a little bit of char to appear around the high points of the roast.

And then: to the table for a glamour shot…

…prior to whisking the roast back to the kitchen to be shredded with a pair of bear claws.

A lettuce leaf, a bit of rice, a shred of pork, and dollops of the ssam and ginger-scallion sauces and kimchi puree. Some caramelized pork candy from the outside. A little chewier white meat from below. A chunk of darker meat confited in its own fat. Bliss in one hand, napkin in the other. Alternate with cold oysters dolloped with any of the sauces. Chase it with a crisp white wine or, better still, a cold pilsner.

One of the best things about roasting a pork shoulder for bo ssam is that you end up with delicious but neutrally flavoured pulled pork. We’ll be using the rest of the meat tomorrow for tacos, with some warm grilled pineapple and salsas of morita pepper and tomatillo. We can’t remember being so excited for leftovers!

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