Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Recession Special Recipe: Pork Buns

It's difficult to avoid repeating myself, but the truth is, I can't help it. David Chang is the guy in the restaurant scene these days. Ferran Adria, arguably the world's best chef (or so it says on his book jacket) comes to New York, and who does he call to show him the town? Not a classic French chef like Eric Ripert, or one of the new school Italian guys, or even a fellow molecular gastonomist like Wylie Dufresne. He calls David Chang, humble but highly rated chef and owner of Ko (from two Recession Specials ago), Momofuku Noodle Bar, Milk Bar, and Ssäm Bar, all located within a few blocks of each other in the East Village. He loves that neighborhood and shows it by not only working there, but eating and playing there too. The food at Ssäm bar is elegant and seasonal, but also accessible and reasonably priced for the quality. It fits right in with the neighborhood, yet manages to elevate it just so.

Some of the dishes at Ssäm Bar are straightforward, while others involve a bit of fusion, and still others are re-imagined or updated versions of more common international fare. A good example are the pork buns, a treat that many eat seated at the bar (where it's easier to get seated), or in the back room and bakery, Milk Bar, while they wait for a proper table. Traditional pork buns are usually light, airy buns filled with roasted, pulled pork, and covered in some kind of sweet and sour barbecue sauce to keep the meat moist. The buns at Ssäm Bar come in the same traditional bun, but are filled with two juicy slices of pork belly, fresh, thinly sliced cucumber (to cut that fat!), scallions, and a drizzle of hoisin sauce. They pack a more complex and satisfying flavor punch than your average bun, but at a heftier price. Sure, $9.00 is ultimately not that pricey for one, but when the original is less than $2.00, and you can make 8 of the updated version at home with minimal effort for about $10.00 total, you start to wonder if they're worth making for yourself.

The answer is yes, they certainly are, and they're just as tasty. While the popularity of pork belly has caused the price to skyrocket (a few years ago it was practically free), you still get a lot for your money because a little of it goes such a long way. A 6" x 2" chunk of pork belly is all you need and shouldn't cost more than 6 or 7 bucks. A package of Chinese buns is $1.50 and a bottle of hoisin is about 2.50 at your local Asian market, and rest of the budget goes to cucumber and scallions. The belly is smothered with soy sauce and spices and simply roasted in the oven for 35-45 minutes and needs little-to-no attention (I left the room and didn't come back until it was done). If you have everything else chopped, all that's left to do is steam the buns, which can easily be done while the belly is resting (they only take 2-3 minutes to steam). Once it's all put together, the cucumber really cuts the fattiness of the belly while adding a little bit of textural crunch since the dish overall is fairly soft. The scallions bring subtle onion flavor and the hoisin sauce adds a little sweet and sour punch. It's a delicious dish to make when you're feeling decadent, or when you encounter a lovely piece of pork belly. And for now, I'm done stealing David Chang's ideas, and I promise to move on to another chef and restaurant. But, in the meantime, if you're interested in making these for yourself, here's the recipe.

Pork Buns

1 6 x 2 inch piece of pork belly
1 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp Chinese five spice
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp ground coriander seed
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
8 frozen Chinese sandwich buns, defrosted
16 thin cucumber slices
1 scallion, finely sliced
3 tsp hoisin sauce

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine Chinese five spice, paprika, coriander, and pepper in a bowl and set aside.

2. Sit pork belly skin side up and carefully poke with a thin, sharp knife so that the top is studded with slits (this will keep the skin from shriveling and shrinking). Rub pork on all sides with soy sauce and spice mixture. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until top is crispy and meaty portion is cooked through.

3. Remove pork belly to a plate and cover lightly with foil, about 5-10 minutes, then thinly slice. Meanwhile, steam buns until cooked through, about 2-3 minutes.

4. When meat has rested, thinly slice it into 1/4" thick slices. Slather inside of buns with hoisin and top with cucumber, pork belly and scallions. Enjoy!


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