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It's a question as old as time: How can I host a kick-ass meal for a bunch of my friends without having to spend the whole party toiling away in the kitchen? Even though you're entertaining, you should still be able to experience the party like the rest of your guests—kicking back with the squad, sipping refreshing beverages, filling up on snacks before the main course, and itching for the moment when everyone's boozed up enough that it's socially acceptable to start scrolling through your Instagram feed again.
Most people who have thrown a successful shindig know that the key to achieving dinner-party-host nirvana is going with a menu that leans heavily on recipes that can be made completely and/or mostly in advance. It's the closest that home cooks come to restaurant-style cooking; get the bulk of your prep done before service (the party), so that you can fly once the hungry hordes descend upon you. Keeping à la minute cooking to a minimum reduces stress, and leads to more consistent and tasty food; your seasoning and attention to detail will be a lot more sharp if you're not spinning around the kitchen trying to tend to a dozen things at once.
This Thai-inspired slow-roasted pork shoulder feast is all about that set-yourself-up-for-success cooking ethos. It pairs rich, crispy skinned, bone-in pork shoulder with a spread of northern Thai accompaniments and garnishes—steamed sticky rice, fried shallots, fresh herbs, lettuce leaves, a dried chili–vinegar dipping sauce, fresh Thai chilies, and toasted-rice powder.
All of these components can be prepared before your friends show up (a few of them can even be made days in advance). Along with the make-ahead advantage, this meal's format also eliminates the headache of having to plate individual portions for everyone. Simply plunk down the beautifully roasted pork shoulder on the dinner table and watch as your guests go H.A.M. tearing into it and fighting over morsels of puffed, crispy pig skin to garnish their overstuffed lettuce wraps.
Depending on your buddies, this should lead to a convivial, shared dining experience, rather than a full-on Lord of the Flies scenario. This type of large-format protein feast is a ton of fun, and has become all the rage in hip restaurants these days, but as with Korean-style bossam, it's a hell of a lot cheaper and more satisfying to pull off on your own. Here's how to do it.
Selecting a Cut
It's hard to beat the cost-to-flavor-to-effort payoff of a roast pork shoulder. When properly cooked—starting it low and slow to break down its tough connective tissue, then finishing it with a blast of high heat to crisp the skin—it's a joy to eat. The meat becomes ultra-tender and remains moist thanks to the cut's high proportion of intramuscular fat, while the skin puffs into chicharron perfection.
The first time I made this dish, I used a beautiful milk-fed porcelet shoulder from D'Artagnan (pictured above) that Daniel had ordered for me on a whim. It's a fantastic product—the meat is rich and sweet, and becomes meltingly tender—but it's definitely on the pricey side. If you decide to spring for one, you won't be disappointed. But you don't have to go that route; a regular bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder will work just as well, and yields delicious results. At your butcher counter, this cut might be labeled as a bone-in "Boston butt" or "picnic shoulder." This is the cut that I used for the bulk of the recipe development process.
Rub it Down
Once you have a pork shoulder, you should dry-brine it overnight before roasting it. I start by scoring the skin and flesh with a sharp knife in a crosshatch pattern. Scoring the skin allows the fat to render evenly, and allows steam to escape during the slow-roasting process. This will lead to puffy, crispy pork skin when it cooks. Scoring also helps the dry brine penetrate more deeply into the meat than it would if it were merely rubbed onto a thick layer of intact pork skin.
I use a simple dry-brine mixture of kosher salt, sugar, and a tiny bit of baking powder. The addition of baking powder is a little trick for achieving crispy pork or poultry skin, which Kenji has used in the past for his all-belly porchetta recipe. The slightly alkaline mixture raises the skin's pH levels, which allows proteins to break down more efficiently, giving you crisper, more evenly browned results. I rub it all over the shoulder, transfer it to wire rack set inside a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, and then refrigerate it, uncovered, overnight.
Roast it Slowly
The next morning, I pop the whole shoulder in a low-temperature oven to slowly roast for about eight hours, until the meat is tender and offers little to no resistance when pierced with a paring knife. The low-and-slow roasting process breaks down the pork's connective tissue, turning tough collagen into melty gelatin. When the meat is cooked, I take the roast out of the oven and let it rest at room temperature while I crank up the oven to give it a final blast of high heat.
Blast it for Crispy Skin
Once the oven comes up to temperature, simply put the shoulder back in, and roast it for about 20 minutes, until the skin puffs and becomes shatteringly crisp. Make sure you keep an eye on it during this time, rotating the baking sheet so that the skin crisps evenly and doesn't burn. There will be a couple spots around the shoulder joint where the skin won't fully puff up, but don't worry about that too much—the skin will still be crunchy and delicious. Take it out of the oven and let it rest before serving.
The Dipping Sauce
As with any hunk of roast pork, you'll want a punchy dipping sauce to cut though the richness and fat of the meat. I'm a big fan of fatty pork with acidic and spicy sauces like Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce. For this feast, I use a Thai-inspired sauce that's a close relative to jaew—a dried chili and lime juice dipping sauce, packed with cilantro and green onions.
The only issue with a dipping sauce that relies on the pucker of fresh citrus juice, and also uses fresh herbs, is that it has a very limited shelf life. The flavor and quality of lime juice quickly degrades over time, while its acidity also kills the flavor and color of the herbs. This means that it's not a great candidate for a make-ahead sauce. I solve this problem by cutting fresh herbs from the mix and substituting distilled vinegar for the lime juice.
The sauce starts with garlic cloves pounded into a paste. I used a mortar and pestle, but you can also do this with a knife (we've found that garlic grated on a microplane tastes far too strong). If you go with the mortar and pestle method, you can add a little sugar to the mortar while pounding away at the garlic to help speed up the process.
The rest of the sauce comes together very quickly: Just dissolve a little sugar in some fish sauce, then add the garlic paste and finely ground dried Thai chilies, followed by a generous amount of distilled white vinegar.
Finally, I whisk in a couple of tablespoons of toasted-rice powder, which thickens the sauce and gives it a nutty, toasty background flavor. This sauce will keep for a week, so you can make it well ahead of your dinner party. Just make sure you bring it to room temperature and stir it to redistribute the rice powder, which will settle at the bottom, before serving.
The Toasted-Rice Powder
As for that toasted-rice powder, you certainly can find pre-made versions in well-stocked Thai markets, but the flavor of the homemade stuff is superior, it's ridiculously easy to make, and you can do so well in advance of your party. I recently put together a guide to making toasted rice powder that explains exactly how. Along with putting it in the dipping sauce, I set it out in a ramekin on the dinner table for this feast, so that people can sprinkle it over their lettuce wraps, where it adds a little extra texture and a toasty popcorn-like flavor.
The Fried Shallots
Another component of this pork-a-palooza feast that you can make days in advance are the Thai-style fried shallots. If it seems intimidating, this how-to guide should help set you at ease. If properly stored, fried shallots will keep for a month, so you can knock out that prep around the same time you send out the invitations for your dinner party.
The Sticky Rice
No northern Thai-inspired meal would be complete without a batch of steamed sticky rice. This is another Thai staple that I recently wrote about, so you can follow these steps to easily make it at home. You can whip up a batch of sticky rice while the pork shoulder is in the oven, and it'll stay warm for a couple of hours, so you don't have to be cooking rice when your guests arrive.
The only remaining ingredients for this meal are the fresh lettuces, Thai herbs, and fresh chilies. You can go with what's available to you, but I like to offer a mix of cilantro sprigs (keep the flavorful tender stems attached!), Thai basil, culantro (not a typo! this herb is also known as sawtooth coriander), and mint. Lettuces like red leaf, romaine, and bibb will all work well here. Just make sure to separate the leaves and wash them well. I like to keep the cleaned lettuces chilled right up until serving them. Finally, for the heat-seekers in the group, I'll thinly slice a few fresh Thai chilies that they can use at their own peril.
To Serve the Feast
Set everything on the table, and let people dig in. If you're the type of person who likes to take charge, always insisting on carving the turkey at Thanksgiving, you can pull apart the pork for your guests.
I like to get that process started, creating small piles of crispy skin and pulled pork that people can help themselves to, at least to help kick things off. Then, sit back and watch with pride as your friends dig into this low-stress, fire-emoji of a Thai pork feast. Your work is done.