Table-top Cooking: Bulgogi Lettuce Wraps

There’s something about having a grill at the table that makes any meal an occasion. Add friends on a cold winter evening and it becomes a down-right event! A couple of weeks ago we brought our grill and butane stove to our friends’ home for a feast of our favorite flavors from Korea — bulgogi lettuce wraps, kochujang chicken,
watercress dumplings, and lots of laughs. Everything but the bulgogi meat was cooked before it was brought to the table, so only the bulgogi needed attention during dinner.

The bulgogi lettuce wraps were quickly renamed “lettuce burritos” by the junior diners at the table since the rolls required as-you-eat assembly (think: fajitas). Thin slices of garlicky sesame flavored beef are quickly cooked, then are wrapped in a lettuce leaf already layered with rice, pickled vegetables and kimchee. The contrast between hot and spicy meat, neutral rice, cool lettuce, and piquant veggie pickles is quite addictive. Each diner makes her own wrap and can play with proportion and flavors to suit their own taste.

We’ve seen the butane stove and canisters at most of the Korean chain stores here in metro DC, including
H Mart and Lotte, as well as Korean Korner in Wheaton. For setting up the stove and grill, and sources for stoves on Oahu or West Coast, see our original post.

We first tried bulgogi lettuce wraps several years ago at another friend’s home, where we sat down to this lovely feast after a lesson in making homemade napa kimchee! Our hostess, June, cooked the bulgogi meat at the stove so we “students” could focus on the assembly of the rolls and oohing and ahhing over our homemade kimchee. Even without a tabletop grill, assembling bulgogi lettuce wraps at the table can add a nice spark to your next weekend family meal or dinner party!

Inspired by June L-S
For 4-6 adults, a part of a multi-course meal

For the Beef Marinade:
1 lb (450g) thinly sliced rib-eye, flank or skirt steak
1/2 Nashi pear, thinly sliced
1 tsp. sea salt
3 TBL toasted sesame oil
2 tsp. raw sugar
1 finger of ginger, peeled and sliced
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. light soy sauce

Combine meat with all seasonings for marinade in non-metal bowl or zipper plastic bag, and marinate at least 8 hours or overnight. The pear is added less for flavor than as a natural meat tenderizer. If nashi pear is not available, you can use 1 kiwi or a slice of papaya to accomplish the same thing, but June warns not too marinate more than 3-4 hours if you use these fruits because they are much more potent tenderizers than the pear, and will turn the meat to mush! (Sounds like a great science experiment, doesn’t it?)

Have ready at the table:
Small container of oil for grill
Washed and dried green and/or red lettuce leaves, torn into 4” pieces
Pickled radish and/or cucumbers (recipe below)
Bowls of cooked medium grain rice, 1 for each diner

Remove meat from refrigerator and let come to room temperature. Drain marinade and discard. Gently pat meat dry.
If using butane stove and grill at table, pre-heat grill over medium-high, and add about 1 TBL oil to grill plate. Carefully add slices of meat using tongs or long chopsticks to keep yourself away from hot oil. Oil may sputter, so take care — we seated the children present at the heads of the table so they were farthest away from the grill and stove.

Turn heat down to medium-low, and turn meat over once to brown both sides. Diners can help themselves directly from the grill as the meat cooks. Using clean tongs or chopsticks, remove meat to serving plate if it cooks faster than people are eating.

Let each person assemble their own wraps:
* Lay a piece of lettuce on your plate
* Add a mouthful of rice, about 1 TBL or so, on top of the lettuce
* Add a couple of slices of pickled cucumber, radish and kimchee
* Top with one slice of bulgogi
* Wrap lettuce around fillings
* Munch, swallow, repeat!

Possible accompaniments: miso soup,
watercress or spinach with sesame dressing, or dumplings.

Use this basic method and dressing for either daikon or cucumber
If you want both pickles, repeat recipe for each vegetable

1/2 small daikon radish OR
1 English of other long cucumber
2-3 TBL sugar

Peel daikon and cut lengthwise, then thinly slice into half-moons or thin strips.

If using cucumber, peel leaving thin stripes of green peel for contrast, then cut in half cross-wise on the diagonal, then lengthwise. Thinly slice cucumber on the diagonal.

Place vegetable in colander set over a bowl or plate. Sprinkle sugar evenly over and through vegetable. Set aside for 30-45 minutes to just wilt veggies (cucumber will take longer than daikon). Meanwhile make dressing.

3 TBL rice vinegar
1/2 tsp. raw sugar
1/2 -3/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2-1 tsp Korean red pepper flakes (can substitute Aleppo pepper)

Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in medium bowl. Taste for tartness — salt will mellow the sharpness of vinegar, but it should still be tart. Add pepper flakes and mix through.

Do not rinse vegetable! Add lightly sweetened, wilted vegetable to dressing and set aside for about 1 hour for flavors to infuse. Divide pickles into 2-3 small serving bowls and place bowls around the table to allow each diner to easily reach the pickles as they assemble their bulgogi rolls.

More Table-top cooking:
Vietnamese style BBQ Pork


Table-top Cooking: Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki: Tabletop cooking at its finest

As promised, the second part of the Table-top Cooking series features the ever-popular Sukiyaki. Like teppan-yaki style grilling (BBQ pork and bun post), there's no reason this entertaining communal style of dining has to be regulated to exotic evenings out at a Japanese restaurant. With the small investment of a single burner butane stove ($15-30, depending on your neighborhood), a few butane cartridges ($1-3 a piece), and some basic cookware, you can create this meal any time at home. A suitable pan for sukiyaki is one that is relatively low-brimmed and wide, with no long handles -- in this photo, we are using a paella-style pan.

Sukiyaki (SKI-yah-ki) is simply a braised meat and vegetable "stew" featuring thin-sliced beef, tofu, negi (Japanese leeks), enoki and shiitake mushrooms, spinach or shingiku (chrysanthemum leaves), and shirataki (yam noodles. a form of konnyaku). Traditionally, sukiyaki was a winter meal cooked over a charcoal brazier built in to a table. The brazier served both to warm the room and the diners, as well as to cook the meal. Usually one person is in charge of keeping the pot full and evenly cooked, and the other diners select cooked pieces from the bubbling pot to put first into an individual serving bowl. Often each diner has a second smaller bowl with a beaten raw egg in it
- the hot pieces of meat and vegetables are dipped into the beaten egg before being eaten with rice. The beaten egg serves 2 purposes, first to cool the hot food coming directly from the fire; second, to envelop each bite in a silken robe of deliciousness that (for me) is the signature of sukiyaki. The egg, however, is completely optional and, of course, should not be consumed by anyone with a compromised immune system, very young children, or pregnant persons. Use only the freshest eggs available, carefully washing each egg in a solution of 2 TBL. white vinegar in 1 quart/liter of water.

Sukiyaki is more a method than a recipe, like the Way to Cook. Besides cleaning and prepping all the ingredients, the only thing requiring a recipe is the braising sauce in which all the ingredients are cooked. Because the ingredients may be a little strange to most people, a brief description and tips for prepping each are included below. If some ingredients are not available to you, suggestions for substitutions are included.

Rinsed and drained shirataki
SHIRATAKI: A form of konnyaku, shaped as "noodles"; konnyaku is a gelatin-like product made from the root of the "devil's tongue plant," a relative of the sweet potato. Konnyaku and shirataki have been gaining ground in Western kitchens as health and diet food because they have virtually no calories, and are flavorless on their own so will absorb the flavors of whatever medium they are cooked in. Konnyaku (and shirataki) is also recognized for its ability to rid the body of toxins -- in Japan, it is known as "the broom of the body" as it contains a dietary fiber that is indigestible yet gentle to the stomach and intestines, sweeping away undigested food and other sediment on its journey through the system. Both shirataki and konnyaku come in white and brown varieties; since it is flavorless, choice is a matter of your aesthetic, but the white form is more often used. Shirataki has a definite gelatinous quality imagine if you could cut jello into strips and pick them up with chopsticks and some people balk at this texture. Think of them as noodles, though, and they may be less objectionable. Remove from package and rinse well under running water and drain. Cut into roughly 3" lengths.
Substitutions: really, only konnyaku, which is in block form, is a substitute; you can slice it lengthwise into a noodle-like shape, or try the decorative style used in another Japanese classic, Oden or Kombu (
directions here). Konnyaku and shirataki are always kept in the chilled section of your market -- on Oahu, virtually every grocery store carries it. Because of its new-found popularity, you may be able to find konnyaku, if not shirataki, in a health food store if you don't have a well-stocked Oriental market nearby.

Japanese leeks, Negi

NEGI: Japanese leek, has a sharper flavor and firmer texture than the more familiar leek. Rinse whole leek, especially the root ends, then begin slicing on a sharp diagonal up to the light green tips. Fill a large non-reactive container with a solution of 1 TBL. white vinegar for every 1 quart/liter of water used, and place sliced leeks in this solution. Swish around gently, then let sit for about one minute. Swish again, then gently lift out all the leeks and place in a colander. Rinse well with running water and drain well. (Use this method for cleaning regular leeks as well). Substitutions: regular leeks (if neither is available, thinly sliced yellow onions may be used)

Dried shiitake
SHIITAKE: Dried Shiitake Mushrooms, see Braised Mushroom post for how-to prepare. Substitutions: any earthy fresh mushroom might work, shiitake, portobella, cremini, even oyster.

Enoki mushrooms
ENOKI MUSHROOM: Fresh tendril-like enoki are another sponge-like ingredient that readily absorbs the braising sauce. To prepare, rinse gently under running water and pat dry. Substitutions: shimeji mushrooms or leave out all together.

TOFU: Firm or extra-firm plain tofu found in the chilled area of the grocery/health store. To prepare, remove and drain, then wrap tightly in a clean kitchen towel and place in a container with a heavy dish pressing on the tofu (you're trying to extract as mush water as possible from the tofu). Leave in fridge for at least 2 hours. Remove toweling, and cut tofu into 1.5" (8cm) blocks. Tofu is a sponge for flavor, and the savory broth and braising liquid in sukiyaki makes bland tofu quite delicious and meaty-tasting.

When cleaned and prepped, assemble these ingredients in a large platter.

Thin sliced beef for sukiyaki
BEEF: Paper-thin slices of very lean beef are traditionally used. In Japan, as in most Asian cultures, meat is used as a flavoring agent rather than a focus of a meal. Therefore, 1/2lb. (250g) is enough for 4 persons. Almost every grocery on Oahu carries sukiyaki-sliced beef (it's actually labelled that way), but I've found the leanest and thinnest slices from Star Market. Elsewhere, Vietnamese and Korean markets have similarly sliced cuts. If you don't have an Asian butcher in the vicinity, ask your butcher to slice a round roast into paper-thin slices (about the thickness of deli-meats). Substitutions: maybe pork or chicken (haven't tried it). Place meat on a separate platter.

Spinach and watercress
GREENS: Spinach and/or Shingiku are the traditional greens used. See
Gai Choy post for cleaning and prepping leafy greens. This photo shows spinach and watercress. Substitutions: any quick-cooking leafy green or combination of greens. Place drained greens in a large bowl.

In Japan, diners begin their meal with a saying that is part exclamation, part blessing, "Itadakimasu!" (EE-tah-dah-kee-mas'). There is no direct English translation, but it is an older expression meaning, "I will receive" and is said to express the diners' thankfulness for the food about to be consumed
gratitude not only for the actual food, but also for the sacrifices and hard work (in the farm, field and kitchen) that produced the meal. I hope this meal will inspire a mood of both celebration and thankfulness at your table too!

(for 4 persons)

Prepare the braising sauce:
1 packet instant dashi no moto (dashi broth)
3 cups hot water
TBL. brown sugar
6 TBL. soy sauce
6 TBL. mirin
3 TBL. sake

In a small sauce pan, dissolve dashi no moto in hot water, then add sugar to blend completely. Add soy, mirin and sake, stir to blend. Set aside to cool while preparing vegetables (see above) and plating meat (see above). When ready to begin, put braising sauce in a pitcher-like container for easy pouring at the table. You can keep refilling the small table-side pitcher as needed from the sauce pan.
Setting the table for sukiyaki

To set the table:
Place butane stove and pan at center of table, closest to the designated cook. Each diner will need a rice bowl, a wide shallow bowl for their individual serving, a smaller cup-like bowl for the beaten egg (if using), and chopsticks. The cook will need to have close at hand:
long chopsticks or tongs
the assembled ingredients
the braising sauce
cooking oil (only at the start of the cooking)
a tall cold drink (this is going to be hot work, tending the pot and watching everyone else eat!)

To begin, pre-heat the pan over a medium fire then add a scant 2
TBL. olive oil and 3-4 slices of beef, and allow to brown very well. It's okay if the meat sticks slightly to the pan, but don't let it burn. Those browned bits are an important flavor base for your sauce. Once the meat has browned, add 1/3 of the negi (leeks), 3-4 more slices of beef, and enough braising sauce to come up about half way up the ingredients in the pan. Now add small handfuls of each of the other ingredients to the pan and keep the braising liquid simmering you'll have to turn the heat up as you add ingredients and sauce, then back down as things get cooked. Try to keep similar ingredients together, both for aesthetic reasons and to help the diners locate what they're hungry for next! When adding more raw meat to the mix, I try to push all the fully cooked ingredients to the other end of the pan, as far away as possible.
Starting sukiyaki

To eat, the cook can either serve each person a portion of all the cooked bits in their individual serving bowls, or the diners can fill their own bowls with what they like. A note about etiquette at the sukiyaki table: diners should not dip their chopsticks into the sauce, or touch food that they do not put into their own bowl (i.e., don't use your chopsticks to move food around in the pan). One way around this is to have a set of serving chopsticks or tongs to allow diners to choose foods from the pan, or allow the chef to use the cooking 'sticks to fill bowls. Of course, when it's just family, who's gonna tell on you, right? : ) From their individual bowls, diners can then dip each mouthful in a beaten egg, and savor.

Aahhh, sukiyaki in the comfort of your own home. "Itadakimasu," indeed!



I"ve received a couple of emails about the use of udon noodles with sukiyaki. We always added cooked udon noodles at the very end of cooking, after most of the diners were sated and the last of the ingredients were fully cooked in the pan. The noodles sit in the braising liquid overnight in the refrigerator and fully absorb all the flavors of the pan by morning. You will have a wonderful breakfast or bento once re-heated fully in a microwave or by returning the pan to the fire. I always understood using udon as a way of not wasting the flavor-laden sauce at the end. I suppose you could include udon earlier in the process as well, and enjoy it as a substitute for, or in addition to, plain rice. Thanks to Debi and to Karl for your questions!


Cook It Quick: Fish Tacos

Fresh fish, fast. And easy. That's what comes to mind when I think of fish tacos. As the myriad holiday and end-of-the-year preparations are underway, it's the kind of quick and healthy meal every busy cook has tucked in her or his sleeve. The fish tacos I first fell in love with over 10 years ago had lightly battered and deep-fried fillets; but more than anything, it was the garlic sauce that put it over the top for me -- very distinctive, the perfect binding agent between the sweet fish and the crunchy but bland cabbage. I've since adapted the dish of my memories to one using flaked grilled fish, to save on both calories and time. Fresh or frozen fillets work equally well -- choose any flaky white meat fish. The key is the fresh garlic sauce.

Purchased tortillas and pre-shredded coleslaw mix means dinner can be on the table in 30 minutes, and everyone can have some fun putting together their own tacos as they eat. But these also dress up well
we've included them with beef and chicken fajitas as part of a festive dinner cooked at the table with friends. (See last month's post on How-to-do Tabletop Cooking) For a fajita-style presentation, or for tabletop cooking in general, slice the fish against the grain before marinating, and cut marination time to 15 minutes.

for 4 persons

2 1lb. fillets of skinned white-meat fish, such as ahi or snapper
Juice of 1 large lemon, about 3
1 tsp. cumin
TBL. oil

Combine lemon juice, cumin and oil. Place fish in glass or other non-reactive dish, pour marinade over fillets and coat all sides. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Garlic Sauce
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
tsp. salt
1 cup mayonnaise
TBL. milk (optional)

Place garlic and salt in mortar and grind to make a smooth paste. Combine with mayo and milk, if using, to reach desired consistency. Set aside to serve.

To assemble:
1 medium head of cabbage, finely shredded
2 limes, quartered
20-30 fresh corn tortillas, warmed and kept covered
sliced pickled jalapenos (not traditional)
homemade or bottled salsa (not traditional)

Remove fish from marinade and lightly pat dry. Season with
sea salt and ground black pepper. Grill or broil for 5 minutes on each side, or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Immediately dress with fresh squeezed lime juice, and flake meat with fork.

Place warmed tortillas, cabbage, garlic sauce and other optional garnishes at the table with flaked fish. Let each person make their own tacos as they eat. Can be served with rice and beans, too.

Table-top Cooking: BBQ pork with rice noodles

Tabletop cooking need no longer be relegated to special nights out at fancy teppanyaki restaurants, where smiling chefs send shrimp and vegetables flying through the air. If you can live without the theatrics, you can grill or have sukiyaki or shabu-shabu at home anytime. It's a great family experience, and a wonderful way to entertain at home, allowing each family member or guest to add the meats or vegetables they desire to the pot or grill. We've done everything from fajitas, pancakes, teppanyaki, sukiyaki, Korean bulgogi and fish juhn, Japanese nabes and okonomiyaki, and this grilled Vietnamese style pork with rice vermicelli noodles.

Rather than buying an electric appliance that leaves you with a trailing electrical cord and extension to deal with, we recommend this simple butane stove that sits compactly on the table and has an easy-to-control flame. This model comes in a plastic case for carrying and storage, and retails here in Hawaii for less than $20. I have also seen sleek stainless steel models selling for closer to $70. The non-refillable butane cartridges are less than $2 a piece. If you're having a hard time finding a butane stove, try a Korean or Japanese grocery. The added bonus, especially for we who live in hurricane-earthquake-tsunami prone areas, this doubles as a handy emergency stove. In fact, we bought this for that latter purpose and had it in the house for almost a year before the little light bulb went on over my head, and I remembered a dinner with friends who used a butane stove to grill bulgogi at the table. That was such a fun meal! Why not make everyday meals more fun, too?

The cookware you use for tabletop cooking should be pans that do NOT have a long handle. With one or more persons reaching toward the hot pans, a long handle is easy to tip over, catch in a sleeve, or bump. With hot liquids and oils, and an open flame, it is an invitation to disaster to use any pot, pan or wok with a long handle. Here are some safer options.

For grilling, this yakiniku grill is ideal. This model is non-stick and includes a drain hole for the excess grease (you need to put a small bowl at the drain point to catch the hot oil). We use this for fajitas, pancakes, yakiniku (literallly, "grilled meat" in Japanese), and okonomiyaki. It retails between $20-25 (in Hawaii, sometimes Long's has it on sale too — same with the stove and butane cartridges). In a pinch, you could also use a shallow pan like the paella-style one we use for sukiyaki, below.

For soups and nabes, we used to use this 3 quart pot from All-Clad just because it was already in the kitchen, any similar pot will work. Recently we've acquired this beautiful stoneware nabe pot too. We make kimchee soup, nabes, and other quick soupy stew-like meals in these.

For sukiyaki and other braised dishes, this shallower paella-style pan from Calphalon works well.
Photos of traditional cast-iron nabe and sukiyaki pans can be seen on this commercial site.

Here is a simple and tasty dish that's perfect for entertaining or to liven up a weekend meal at home. Thin slices of pork (you can certainly use beef or chicken, as well) are marinated in a sweet lemongrass marinade, grilled and served atop a bed of rice vermicelli noodles (called bun, "buhn") and fresh salad and herb base. Of course, you don't have to grill the meat at the table prepare it all in the kitchen and simply serve this delicious "Vietnamese noodle salad"!

Recipe for 4 persons

Marinade for 1 lb. (450g) pork, beef, or chicken
TBL. brown sugar
tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. cornstarch
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots or 1/2 small onion, minced (about 3 TBL.)

stalk lemongrass, peeled and tender parts minced
2 TBL. fish sauce
1 TBL. oil

Thinly slice (as for sukiyaki) pork or beef. (In these photos I used pork sliced for tonkatsu, but that's too thick. Next time I'll get a thinner slice, or pound this cut thinner.) Or slice and pound thin chicken breasts or thighs. Combine marinade ingredients and add meat. Let marinate at least 1 hour, and up to 3 hours.

To assemble:
10 oz. (280g) bean sprouts (moyashi)
1 large bunch Thai basil
1 large bunch mint
1 large bunch cilantro
4 stalks scallions, roots trimmed
1 Japanese cucumber
1 head Romaine or leaf lettuce
1 package of rice vermicelli, soaked in warm water 30 minutes or until pliable
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped (optional)
Carrot Pickle (recipe below)

Wash and pick leaves off basil, mint and cilantro. Rough chop herbs and scallions and set aside.

Peel cucumber. Cut off ends, then cut into quarters lengthwise. Cut off seeds, then julienne. Cut lengths into 2" (5 cm) pieces. Set aside.

Wash and remove thick ends, if necessary. Julienne.

Blanch the soaked rice noodles in boiling water until they turn bright white, about 30 seconds. Drain and set aside.

Combine 3/4 of the herbs, cucumber and lettuce together. Place 1/4 of the salad in the bottom of a deep bowl (like a saimin or ramen bowl).

Coil 1/4 of the rice noodles over the salad in a mound.

Garnish noodles with remaining herbs, cucumber and Carrot Pickle (and peanuts, if using). Place garnished bowl, chopsticks and a small bowl with dipping sauce (Nuoc Nam, recipe below) in front of each diner.

Remove meat from marinade and arrange on serving platter. Lightly dab with paper towel to make sure it is not too wet (it will splatter in the hot oil).

Assemble the grill and place it where the cook can reach it safely (this meal is best prepared where one cook handles the raw meat, placing it on the grill while other diners remove pieces to their bowls as the meat cooks). Set the grill pan securely on the stove notches to make certain it doesn't move around or slip. Put a catch bowl at the oil drip spout, if necessary. Turn on grill and allow pan to heat to cooking temperature. Lightly oil grill and carefully place slices on the pan (do not drop pieces onto oil, which will splatter). Have a clean plate on hand to remove meat as it cooks, if the diners don't keep pace with the cooking. Let folks remove cooked meat to their bowls and begin eating.

A final caveat: you have an open flame and hot liquids or oil on the table, so you do keep a close eye on the stove; and never allow young children to reach near the open flame. Also, since you're cooking meats with some fat on them, there will still be some splattering from the grill, so all diners should be warned of the possibility of splatters, no mater how careful you are. It should go without saying, too, that you probably want to try this out before inviting friends to participate so you have a better idea of how far the splattering oil can reach.

This photo is BBQ pork bun from our favorite restaurant. (See how thin the meat is?)

More tabletop cooking to come . . .

Combine together:
2 cloves garlic, minced
TBL. sugar (I still use brown sugar)
6 TBL. fish sauce
2 TBL. lime juice
1/2 cup water
1 sliced serrano or bird's eye chile (optional)

Stir well until sugar dissolves. Divide into 4 dipping bowls.

2 medium carrots, shredded or julienned
1 TBL. sugar
1/4 cup water
2 TBL. rice wine vinegar
tsp. sea salt

Sprinkle carrots with sugar. Leave for 15 minutes. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over carrots. Set aside until needed.

Table-top Cooking, Part 2: Sukiyaki