I felt the need for some BBQ the other day, but in a new and different way. No burgers or hot dogs, no chicken or ribs. Instead I started thinking about Korean BBQ, one of my favorites. Korean food is fantastic – delicious, fully flavored and a little spicy at times. I headed to my favorite Korean market, steadying my nerves for the inevitable Tetris parking lot situation, white knuckeling my car into an oddly shaped spot. I grabbed a cart and looked around to put together some ideas. Korean BBQ was now definitely on the menu; it was just a question of how I was going to pull it off.
The first thing I saw upon entering the market was the rice cake display. I’m a texture gal, and these things are amazing with a pleasant chew. They come in all kinds of shapes – sticks, rounds and oval slices and can be found in the freezer case or if you’re lucky, fresh. I threw a pack of wonderfully fresh and tender rice sticks in the cart. An idea was forming. These would be fantastic with a little bit of a char on them.
Next up, the protein. The meat section of a Korean market is a fascinating place to explore, the case filled with all sorts of cuts you don’t see at the standard grocery store, specially designed for different dishes. Just in the beef case, you might find tendons and bones for soup, thin pieces of rib-eye or top round for bulgogi, slivers of brisket for stews and hot pots, thin cuts of ribs to be grilled and wrapped in lettuce for kalbi. It’s fascinating and I’m not even getting into all the available pork cuts. Being of lover of bulgogi, a type of Korean BBQ with a sweet-spicy sauce, a package of thinly sliced rib-eye went into the cart.
Rice cake bulgogi kebabs were sounding really good but they needed a vegetable of some sort so I headed over to the produce section to round out my skewer. Chunks of zucchini could be nice, as would fat pieces of scallion but then something caught my eye – shishito peppers. Yes! Perfect. Small green peppers that are generally mild but every once in a while – boom! – there’s a crazy, mega hot interloper in the crowd. I usually enjoy them simply blistered in a cast iron skillet and sprinkled with flaky salt. Wonderful. They would be great on my skewers. If you can’t find them, zucchini and/or scallions work well. A quick stop at the kimchi bar (yes, my market has a kimchi salad bar) for a few small containers of various kinds of the addictive spicy pickled vegetables and I was off and running.
With ingredients in hand, I started putting things together. The beef was marinated in a simple mixture of ginger, garlic, soy, honey, Korean red pepper, shaoshing rice wine and gochujang. I usually use sake, but I forgot to pick that up and used Chinese shaoshing rice wine instead because I had it on hand. If you don’t have either, rice wine vinegar would be ok. It’s just a smidge and adds a nice acid balance to the marinade. No Korean red pepper? Regular chile flakes, the kind you sprinkle on your pizza slice, work. But the gochujang you really need to find – there is no substitute. It is a fermented red chile paste that is essential for this recipe, a little thick, a little sticky, sweet-hot and highly addictive. It is easily the #1 trendiest ingredient these days and is becoming a little easier to find – I’ve seen it at Whole Foods though Korean markets always have a surprisingly large selection of red tubs and squeeze bottles of the stuff. I’ve spendt an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the difference between the brands, to no success I might add, but have discovered that some have a kind of spice-level indicator. I tend to grab the hot stuff and go with it.
A little marinade is pulled off for later, then the rest goes into a Ziploc bag with the thinly sliced beef for an hour or more in the fridge. Now about that beef. If you have an Asian market, particularly one with a Korean bend, you’ll find a meat case like I described above where a bulgogi cut will be easily found. If not, do not despair, grab a rib-eye (my preference), partially freeze to firm the meat and slice thinly in 1/8” thick slices with a very sharp knife. If you have a butcher, by all means talk to them. They will hook you up and do it for you. Good people to know.
The rice cakes are another ingredient you’re going to need to track down as they are a key part of the recipe. Korean markets always have a rack with stacks of really fresh rice cakes in various shapes but in a more general Asian market, check the freezer section. I love these things stir fried or tossed in soups. Such a great texture but first they need to be softened a bit with a little time in boiling water. How long will depend on how fresh they are (they go stale quite quickly). If incredibly fresh, a minute or so will do. If hard or frozen, boil longer until they soften but be careful they don’t go gummy and start to disintegrate.
With everything ready, it’s time to build the skewers. I build on two parallel skewers for stability which is also why I like the rice sticks over the other shapes in this recipe. Remove the beef from the marinade and roll into tight roll-ups. Shimmy a rice stick down two skewers. Follow with a beef roll, a pepper, another rice stick, beef, pepper and a final rice stick. You’ll have a nice flat skewer that is pretty easy to control on the grill. Continue with the remaining ingredients to build as many skewers as you can.
Preheat your grill. There are many options here: charcoal, gas or even a stovetop grill pan. For all, preheat to screaming hot then grill over indirect heat until cooked and lightly charred, with a brush now and again of the reserved marinade. Be sure to oil the grates after heating; the skewers may still stick just a little but hang in there.
Serve the skewers hot over rice with some kimchi on the side if you like. Delicious! Hot and sweet, chewy and tender all at the same time, I can eat a bazillion of these things. They are the perfect summer food, familiar and yet a little different.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: OH MY GOD, YES TO EVERYTHING. The beef is tender, sweet and spicy. The peppers are delicious and a little exciting; it’s a game of spicy roulette. You never know if you’re going to get the crazy hot one. And the rice cakes? The chewiness is exquisite but with a little char from the grill? A whole other level. If you’re intrigued but a little hesitant to dip your toe in the wonderful world of Korean food, this is your gateway recipe. As I mentioned above, it’s a little familiar but with an interesting spin to mix things up. Absolutely perfect for your summer backyard BBQs (though I’ve grilled these inside and they were great. The house was smoky for a while but a good fan took care of that.)
Seven years ago: Tart Tips, Tart Dough
Six years ago: Betty’s Pies exploring Minnesota
Five years ago: Life in Southwest France
Four years ago: Bastille Day Bomb Pops
Three years ago: Spicy Pineapple Paletas
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Slow Roasted Spiced Pineapple
BEEF BULGOGI RICE CAKE SKEWERS
makes about 14 skewers
for the marinade:
2 Tablespoons gochujang (Korean fermented chile paste)
2 Tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons shaoshing rice wine
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
¼ teaspoon Korean red pepper powder (or crushed red pepper flakes)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 large garlic clove, finely grated
1 pounds beef ribeye, cut thin 1/8”
28-32 Korean rice cake sticks
32 shishito peppers
4″ bamboo skewers
Sesame seeds for garnish, optional
- For the beef: if you’ve bought thinly sliced ribeye (bulgogi cut), skip this step. Place the rib-eye in the freezer for 20-30 minutes to make slicing easier.
- Once firm but not frozen, with a sharp knife, thinly cut the rib-eye into pieces 1/8” thick then cut the pieces in half width-wise if large.
- For the marinade: In a small bowl, mix together all the marinade ingredients.
- Reserve 2-3 Tablespoons of marinade in a small bowl and refrigerator for later.
- In a large bowl or a Ziploc bag, toss the beef with remaining marinade until thoroughly coated and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up several hours or overnight.
- For the rice cakes: bring a medium pot of water to a boil.
- if your rice cakes are fresh, blanch for 30 seconds to soften.
- If your rice cakes are frozen, blanch for 2-3 minutes.
- Drain and rinse with cold water.
- Drain again and pat the cakes dry with paper towels. Do not let the rice cakes sit on the paper towels as they will stick.
- Build the skewers: remove the beef from the marinade (if needed cut into manageable pieces), and roll each piece into a tight roll.
- Using two 4″ wooden skewers, alternate a rice cake stick, marinated beef roll, and shisito pepper.
- Add rice stick, a beef roll, a pepper and a final rice stick to anchor the skewer. I find these a lot easier to grill when you start and end with the rice cakes.
- Prepare the grill:
- For a charcoal grill: light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the grill. Set the cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 10 minutes. When hot, oil the grate with an oiled paper towel.
- For a gas grill: set half the burners to the highest heat setting, cover, and heat for 10 minutes. When hot, oil the grate with an oiled paper towel and turn the heat to medium-high.
- For a stovetop grill pan: heat over high to screaming hot. When hot, oil with an oiled paper towel. Get a strong fan going to handle the smoke.
- Place skewers off center of the charcoal or gas grills (where heat should be moderate). With the stovetop pan, leave the heat on high.
- Cook, turning the skewers and basting with the reserved marinade every few minutes, until beef is cooked through, tender within, and browned on the outside, and the peppers and rice cakes are blistered; about 10-13 minutes.
- Serve hot over rice garnished with sesame seeds and a side of kimchi, if desired.