If you’re interested in making Korean food at home, take a spin through chef Peter Serpico’s new cookbook, “Learning Korean.”
Serpico was born in Seoul, adopted as a toddler and grew up in suburban Maryland. He worked at various restaurants, attended culinary school and then built a starry career, including being a chef/partner at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, which in 2009 won a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
But it wasn’t until he was an adult and met his wife, Julie, whose family is from Korea, that Serpico began making Korean food. The cookbook reflects what he discovered as he got to know his in-laws and dug into his heritage through food.
“Whenever we see her grandparents,” he said of their daughter, Charlie, “they just feed her Korean food because that’s all they eat. They don’t call it Korean food, they just call it food.”
Serpico started working on the cookbook three years ago, so the bulk of the recipe testing and photography took place in his home during the height of the pandemic. He did much of the work with Charlie, now 7, by his side, so the book is personal, too.
“It was really hard,” he said, adding that he was also working full time on several takeout and side businesses he had going during the pandemic. “I really wanted my daughter to understand and remember. Now, she has that as a memory. We turned something really bad into something good. We had that time together.”
For the home cooks who pick up Serpico’s book, his goal is to demystify Korean food.
“I really, really wanted to make it a cooking book and not a cookbook,” he said. By that he means that he encourages people to use it with pen in hand, making notes about how they might change a recipe to suit their taste. For example, he toned down his countertop kimchi to suit Charlie’s taste, but people can add more ginger and chile paste as they see fit.
“I would take zero offense to that,” he said. “I want people to use it as a baseline.”
If he had his way, interested home cooks would stock up on a few of the long-lasting, nonperishable Korean pantry staples needed and then work their way through the cookbook.
“Then, whenever you have the spark, it’s there for you,” he said, adding that most of the fresh ingredients featured are available at any supermarket.
His aim is to provide recipes, most of them on the more healthful side, and instructions for Korean food that are accessible to cooks with just about any level of experience. When necessary, he provides step-by-step photos for stuffing dumplings, for example, but most of the recipes — there are 100 in the book — have few steps and few ingredients.
Take his Ground Beef Bulgogi.
Bulgogi is traditionally made with tenderloin or sirloin, but when my colleague Becky Krystal wrote about New York chef Hooni Kim’s bulgogi, she noted that he makes it with brisket, a less expensive cut of meat. Kim’s delicious version is included in his cookbook, “My Korea.”
Serpico goes a step further making this popular Korean staple with ground beef.
“This recipe delivers all that flavor on a hamburger budget,” Serpico writes in his cookbook.
If you have time, Serpico recommends mixing the beef with the seasonings and then letting it marinate up to overnight in the refrigerator for even more flavor. But my colleague Olga Massov, a busy working mom, made it for her family one night without marinating and recommended I give it a whirl that way. I did and agreed with her that even without the overnight wait, the dish is quite flavorful. And it comes together in about 20 minutes.
I asked Serpico if he objected to the change, and he emphatically replied no. That’s exactly how he wants people to use his cookbook.
“All it’s supposed to do is make you happy,” he said. “That’s it.”
The salty, sweet, garlicky mixture can be wrapped in lettuce or cabbage leaves, served with rice, noodles and kimchi, or rolled in seaweed with rice and vegetables to make kimbap. It also would make a fine filling for dumplings. (If you’re making a pot of rice to go with it, put the rice on before you begin cooking the beef, and it should all be ready at the same time.)
The recipe also works well with plant-based meats.
Ground Beef Bulgogi
Make Ahead: The seasoned beef mixture can be marinated as long as overnight for more flavor.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
NOTE: If you need to make a fresh batch of rice, for 2 cups of cooked long-grain white rice, rinse 3/4 cup of rice until the water runs clear. Then, place it in a medium, lidded saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon olive oil and stir to coat the rice. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and a pinch of salt, if desired, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
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- 1 pound lean ground beef (90 percent lean or higher) or 12 ounces to 1 pound plant-based meat, such as Beyond Meat brand
- 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces), halved and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
- 2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (white and light green parts)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- Cooked white rice, for serving (see NOTE)
- Kimchi, for serving (optional)
- Fresh lettuce or cabbage leaves, for serving (optional)
In a large bowl, stir together the beef or plant-based meat, onion, garlic, scallions, sesame oil, soy sauce, maple syrup and salt until combined.
In a large saute skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the beef mixture and cook, stirring occasionally to break up any large chunks, until cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Serve the bulgogi in bowls with rice, kimchi, and lettuce or cabbage leaves for wrapping, if using.
Per serving (3/4 cup bulgogi)
Calories: 308; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 8 g; Cholesterol: 75 mg; Sodium: 506 mg; Carbohydrates: 7 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 22 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Learning Korean” by Peter Serpico (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022).
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to email@example.com.
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