Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ssam and Shrek cookies



The Momofuku cookbook is eccentric and absorbing, but I’ve been consuming it in tiny chunks because David Chang has a pungent, supercilious persona that I find hard to digest. Here’s something that really turns me off: He repeatedly describes losing his temper with his employees. He’s apparently famous for it. Every time he brings it up, I hate him a little. I can’t help it. I identify with the employees. 

But here’s something I love about him: His devotion to American country hams. After tasting some great country ham, he became convinced that Ssam Bar "had to serve country ham, had to put money in the pockets of people who are preserving an old American tradition, and had to do it in New York before anyone else." With great passion he tries to persuade the reader to start buying and eating country ham. He succeeds. I ordered a country ham. One day soon I will make red eye mayonnaise, warm up a baguette, and slice some salty, pink Tennessee ham. He’s an interesting guy, David Chang. He should stop yelling at people.

Since the last post I’ve cooked two new Momofuku dishes: pork sausage ssam and steak ssam. Ssam is food (Korean) that’s wrapped in lettuce or some other leafy green, sort of like tacos. You may have heard of Chang’s bo ssam, a great, sugary-salty shoulder of pork that is slow-roasted for many hours and served with oysters, rice, and various sauces, along with a big bowl of lettuce for wrapping. It’s a tremendous party dish -- bounteous, communal, delicious, easy. I can’t recommend it more highly. I consider it a staple now; I’ve made it six or seven times and it never disappoints. 


These two new ssams aren’t quite as brilliant. They’re relatively easy and quite delicious, but don’t feel bounteous and communal. Rather than pulling chunks of meat from a giant shared haunch, you serve yourself neat little portions. Steak ssam = marinated beef that is grilled, sliced, and served with rice and pureed kimchee. Pork sausage ssam is made by mixing ground pork with various Vietnamese ingredients (fish sauce, lemongrass), baking it in a brownie pan, cutting it into rectangles and grilling it for a few minutes. This ssam is served with fish sauce vinaigrette and scallion ginger sauce. Both ssams are very good. Realistically, I probably won’t make either again. 


The same is true of the last two recipes I’ve tried from Valerie Gordon’s Sweet. Her matcha cookies with white chocolate and macadamia nuts are superrich, intensely sweet, and only faintly tea-flavored. We all liked them, but they sat around for a week, disappearing at the sluggish rate of maybe one per day which means they got stale before they got eaten. Was it their warty green appearance? I called them Shrek cookies, but no one knew what I was talking about, so apparently that cultural reference is dead. 

But maybe it wasn't their looks. Maybe everyone in the house is sick of cookies. No one ate the salted peanut blondies either, and they were tasty, tan, and conventionally attractive. I can’t explain. 


29 comments:

  1. Bo ssam sounds like a perfect recommendation for a spring gathering in the yard. If spring ever, ever, ever arrives. It is hard to imagine a plate of sweets being consumed at a leisurely pace for days at my house or where I work. I think it's a testament to you and the culture of food in your family rather than a comment on your baking skills or the recipe. I'd like to have that kind of self control!

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    1. I think my kids have just grown up with so many sweets around that they don't care that much. I used to search my childhood home for anything remotely resembling dessert. Disgusting stale chocolates filled with rum that my mother had hidden in the back of a cupboard three years previously? I'd find them.

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    2. I think we grew up in the same home with the same mother. I make homemade cookies and breads and treats almost every weekend for my children's lunches. They eat and appreciate them, but they don't binge on sweets the way I did.

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  2. Interesting about the cookies and blondies. I do find green food to look unappetizing in an unconscious way, but I am not a big matcha fan either. Surely the Shrek reference is still alive; they are still making movies! I have been looking at those blondies a lot; they look addicting, so maybe your crowd has had enough of sweets for a while. As much as I like them, I find that after a while, I don't want them as much. That's probably a good thing for me.
    What kind of country ham did you order? I live in TN, so I am curious. My grandfather was a farmer, raised (and butchered) pigs, and made his own country hams and stored them in a cardboard box covered in salt. As much as I wanted to love them, I never did. They are just too salty for me. I hope you really like yours.
    You're right, yelling at employees is a very unattractive trait. I detest that kind of behavior. It implies so many negative things about the person who does it.

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    1. Oh Beckster, I worry about the saltiness. My only experience with country ham before was very salty. This is a Benton's ham from Tennessee. We'll see.
      I'm not sure the blondies age that well. My sister was crazy about them the first day, as was I, but a few days later they had lost some of their appeal.

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    2. You may have to boil it in water to make it edible, but if you like salt, you may love it. I am not a salt lover, so I am never seduced by saltiness. If Chang uses it as a general ingredient, I would not add any additional salt to a recipe until after tasting. Not that you would not have thought about that yourself, just a gentle warning.

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  3. I just had Bo Ssam for the first time a few weeks back, at a relaxed dinner with friends. We didn't do oysters, but it was otherwise David Chang's recipe. To my mind oysters need to be eaten with a minimum of accompaniments and a bracing, very cold and very simple cocktail, not muddied up with braised pork and kimchee. Maybe some day I can be persuaded otherwise. David Chang did a fascinating interview alongside David Simon (of The Wire & Treme)) at a City Arts & Lectures talk last year. He seemed quite modest then, so I am disappointed to read that he's a *#%& in the kitchen. So very boring and UNcreative, especially from someone who is otherwise so dynamically innovative.

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    1. The New Yorker story linked to in a later comment really humanized David Chang for me -- he comes across as tormented by his temper and perfectionism. So the person you saw at the lecture was probably the real thing. What was he doing with David Simon?? About the oysters, I didn't include them the first few times I made bo ssam for the reasons you state. But when I finally did, I was totally smitten. They add this cool, soft, freshness to the mix -- really incredible. It's not about the oyster itself, but about the soft cold oyster/warm salty pork/fiery condiment combination. Try it some time. I would have a hard time going back to oysterless bo ssam.

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  4. Like beckster, I'm from Tennessee. My grandfather cured his hams, and they were too salty for me, though I loved my grandmother's biscuits and red-eyed gravy. My uncle (by marriage) sugar-cured his hams, though, and is is enough to make one weep that the recipe died with him. That was just the best stuff in the world. I have never seen the like since he died.

    I am completely with you about bosses hollering at their employees. Cannot stand it, in person, in books, or on the TV. It's enough to make me get up and walk away.

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    1. Oh, that IS sad about the lost ham recipe. Did your uncle have a big curing shed?

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  5. I hate people who are hurtful to others, especially their underlings. It just doesn't seem fair. And employees respond so much better to kindness than outrage. Heap on the praise, I say. And don't be a jerk.

    I remember when an old boss of mine yelled at my assistant for no reason (well, the reason was he was always grouchy when he was hungry!), and my assistant groused about it, asking him why he was yelling at her, and he said, "I don't know. I'm in a bad mood, and I had to yell at someone, and I can't yell at Kristin!" And I said, "Well, I guess you could, but probably just the one time." He was actually a very nice guy when well fed.

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    1. When I was 23, at my first job out of college I used to have to sort through my boss's mail and one day I did the crossword puzzle in the back of his New York magazine. It was an incredibly boring, isolated job in a cubicle with no one else around and I was young and clueless and I figured that since the magazine was for business purposes (he was a journalist) he wouldn't miss the crossword puzzle. BIG MISTAKE. He brought me into the office, closed the door, yelled and kept yelling even after I started sobbing. He wasn't a nice guy, even when well fed.

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    2. What a jerk. Having worked around surgeons my whole career, I have experienced the yelling, but unless I'm in the wrong you can't make me cry. We used to Xerox the Washington Post crossword at a lab where I worked right out of college and then compete to see who could finish it the fastest, total nerds.

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  6. Here is the link to an entertaining portrait of David Chang in the New Yorker
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/24/080324fa_fact_macfarquhar?currentPage=all
    He's not someone I think I'd hang out with, but I do love his food.

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  7. The yelling at employees is abusive -- he's lashing out at people who can't defend themselves. Ugh, this is why I never want to know about the lives of people whose work I enjoy. I was crushed a while ago to find out that Joe Strummer of the Clash was a raging misogynist. I don't care so much about David Chang, but still!

    My family would have wolfed down those treats. They have never seen sugar they didn't want to eat.

    Is it Calvin Trillin or Judith Jones who has a funny story about buying a country ham and not realizing that it has to be prepared in a certain way to make it edible? Whichever one it is, it's a charming story about the clueless New Yorker (for a change).

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    1. I used to love V.S. Naipaul's work, but after Patrick French's biography, I've been unable to read another word he wrote.

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