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No matter the season, Korean bulgogi 'slays' the appetite

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I celebrated my 24th birthday while I was at cooking school in New York City, with a three-layered chocolate hazelnut dacquoise. The school offered a short but intensive program that majored in the French classics: apple charlotte, boeuf en gelee, veal demi-glace.

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After-hours, it felt like I was earning a minor in Korean food. My closest friends there - one Korean-born, the other from a Korean family from Georgia - led all of us on unofficial tours of Koreatown. The girl from Seoul took charge of our education, making sure her fellow students would receive a taste of her hometown, at one point commanding me to eat slippery rings of raw, opalescent squid (tolerable with spicy mustard dressing, but quite rubbery) and penny-sized crabs straight from the tank, still-kicking (surprisingly harmless, I might go as far as to say they were good; crunchy of course).

My friend from Georgia was less the pusher; she divided her love equally between a good two-crust fruit pie and Korean bulgolgi (marinated grilled beef or pork) and she cooked both with considerable skill. On the weekends she threw multi-course Korean dinners in her small Manhattan apartment, usually including the pork salad for me. It was a revelation. I had grown up eating pork prepared so well - grilled Iowa-thick chops and slow-baked Boston butt roasts that collapsed at the fork, among many other things - but I had never met meat like this: charred and sticky, tender and gingery, I saw that she cooked the thin pieces quickly over high heat . . . but what in the world was in the marinade?

I found out a few years later, when she came to town to make my wedding cake: a towering thing, stacked with soft, flecked layers of caramel cake, very southern, with the most decadent of buttercreams.

The night before she made the cake, she made bulgogi. Two hours before dinner, she cut and marinated the beef with just a few ingredients: brown sugar, soy sauce, grated ginger and sesame oil. My husband lit an oak and popple fire, dropped the iron grill over it and we sat on our haunches around the grill, like dogs obediently keeping their distance from the table. This time, with beef instead of pork, and instead of on top of a salad, she served it the traditional way: wrapped in a lettuce leaf, slathered with Korean hot pepper sauce and raw slivers of garlic.

Ever since, this has been in heavy rotation at my house, in the summertime grilled over the wood fire, and in the winter, cooked quickly in a cast-iron pan. No matter the season, bulgogi is one of my easiest, and most impressive, meals. It is so unbelievably good, it slays newcomers. It takes more time to cut the beef thinly than it does to cook it, as you want to take care to cut very thinly and always across the grain. Marinate the meat just a few hours (more than that and it begins to cure, due to the sugar), and skip your impulses to make just enough. Of this, you make a lot. In my house we call it candy-meat, and it seems that no matter how much I make, we are always left with just-enough to fight over.

Korean Grilled Beef

with Fresh Garlic, Lettuce Wraps and Kochujang

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds boneless beef short ribs or chuck roast

4 tablespoons dark brown sugar

4 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

one-fourth teaspoon salt

10 turns black pepper

8 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

lettuce leaves for rolling

kochugang, Korean fermented red pepper paste

kimchi, optional

Cut the beef off the bone and trim off silverskin and excess fat. Cut in half and then slice thinly, about one-fourth-inch thick, across the grain. Place in a bowl and toss with the remaining marinade ingredients. Marinate up to 2 hours at room temperature (and as long as 4 hours, refrigerated).

To cook the beef, heat a grill (or cast-iron pan or grill pan) over medium-high heat, until a drop of water sizzles rapidly.

Transfer the beef to a paper-towel-lined plate to remove excess marinade. Grill the beef quickly on both sides until cooked through and charred in spots.

Soak the sliced garlic in ice-water for a few minutes to soften its bite. Drain and pat dry.

Serve the beef with large pieces of lettuce, raw garlic, and kochugang. Each guest will assemble their own beef rolls by painting their leaf with a little kochujang, adding a few pieces of beef, a couple slices of garlic, and rolling it up into a package.

Brown Rice and Barley with Sesame

one-half cup hull-less barley (or pearl barley)

1 cup short grain brown rice

3 cups water

one-fourth teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame oil

sesame seeds for garnish

Combine the barley and rice in a wire mesh sieve and rinse well. Transfer to a 2-quart pot and add the water. Season to taste with salt and let the grains soak for 2 hours, or longer. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, cover, and cook until all of the liquid is absorbed and the grains are tender, about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Uncover, rake through with a fork, and sprinkle with the sesame oil. Garnish with the sesame seeds.

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