My Brilliant Korea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sang Yoon was born in Seoul and learned to love Korean food from his gourmet father. Now that he's a professional chef, he still has a fondness for his favorite childhood snack, spicy pollack roe. But he rarely cooks Korean food anymore.

He's too busy. As the executive chef at the landmark Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica, he spends his nights cooking French-influenced contemporary California food.

And what Asian influences there are tend to be Japanese. There's nothing Korean at Michael's. "Just me," Yoon says with a laugh.

But on a recent day off, he turned out a full-scale Korean dinner from beef dumplings to dried persimmon dessert. Barbecued rib eye and short ribs, homemade kimchi, marinated vegetables, seafood and more--nothing was too much for him to undertake on this rare occasion.

"I think of [Korean cooking] as my personal comfort food, rather than as a business," says the 30-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate. "I don't want to get tired of it, take something I love and have to do it every day."

Yoon grew up in Santa Monica. His father, D.H. Yoon, had moved the family there to open the foreign offices of the Korea Times when Sang was a year old. The elder Yoon is an avid cook and taught him the fundamentals of Korean cuisine. Family vacations in Korea and Japan exposed the boy further to authentic East Asian flavors.

Still, Yoon's culinary education has been primarily Western. As a teenager, he worked briefly at Masa's and Stars in San Francisco. CIA externships put him in the kitchens of Lespinasse in New York and Robuchon in Paris. Then Yoon went to Modena in northern Italy, where he stayed on an olive farm for eight months and developed a love of Italian food and wines.

In Los Angeles, he worked at Cafe Del Rey and Chinois on Main. An opening for a sous chef brought him to Michael's, where he was quickly promoted to executive chef.

Despite all his training in Western cooking, Yoon has not changed the way he cooks Korean food. "I keep it pretty pure," he says.

The early dinner took place at the Pacific Palisades home of Yoon's girlfriend, Valentina Kenney. A small group of friends gathered outdoors at a wood plank table set with Asian rush placemats, fanned white napkins, crossed wooden chopsticks and raffia-wrapped sake containers that held sprays of orchids. A wisteria arbor gave shelter from the hot afternoon sun.

First, there were dumplings stuffed with beef, pork and tofu, cooked in a light broth made from beef brisket, daikon and fresh shiitake mushrooms. They were served in pale green Korean ceramic bowls that Yoon had borrowed from his parents. He garnished the dumplings with egg pancakes and green onions--both shredded in a flash with a chef's expertise.

The barbecue smoked nearby, ready for Yoon to grill the marinated meats. The marinade, Yoon says, should not taste of soy alone but should have a sweet flavor as well. He sweetens it with a shredded Asian pear as well as sugar and sweet rice wine (mirin).

To cook the bulgogi (sliced rib eye), he set a special heavy iron grill over the coals. The meat cooked on a dome in the center of the grill and the juices ran down and collected around the edges. The procedure is to slosh the beef through the juices before eating it. Rather than transfer the cooked meat to a platter, Yoon brought the grill to the table, where it became a fragrant centerpiece.

Yoon explained how to wrap the meat, along with rice and bean sauce, in lettuce leaves. The thick sauce was spicy from red chiles, yet complex with the flavors of Korean and Japanese bean pastes, garlic, onions and sesame oil.

He also barbecued galbi (beef short ribs) cut crosswise, flanken style, in thin slices. As his guests pondered how to eat the ribs with chopsticks, he explained that they should be eaten with the hands.

Just as at a Korean restaurant, Yoon lined up an array of side dishes. They included pan-seared tofu slices laced with spicy green onion sauce, marinated bean sprouts and sauteed Korean chiles combined with garlic greens. (The wrinkly green chiles are the same as the Japanese shishito. Some Korean markets label them "twist chiles.")

Yoon had made his own kimchi, rather than buying one of the many varieties available in Korean markets. One bowl held neat bundles of pickled nappa cabbage wrapped around daikon and cucumber.

Another contained a kimchi designed for warm weather. "In the summer, kimchis get lighter, less spicy, more like a pickle," he says. It was seasoned with salted shrimp. The sea taste dissipates as the kimchi ferments, leaving behind only the saltiness.

The backdrop for the assorted spicy flavors and textures was plain white rice, moist and slightly sticky as Koreans prefer it. Individual rice bowls stood in for dinner plates. In between bites, you rest your food there, flavoring the rice.

Now it was time for dessert, and Yoon seemed apologetic as he brought out bowls of dried persimmons in a light syrup spiced with ginger and cinnamon. "It's not really a dessert, not like a souffle or anything," he says.

In fact, it was more involved than a souffle. Yoon had dried the persimmons himself in the atrium of his Santa Monica home, using Hachiyas rather than the Fuyus sold dried in Asian markets. And he used true Ceylon cinnamon, which he describes as citrusy and stronger than ordinary cinnamon. The pine nuts floating on top, longer and thinner than usual, came from a Korean shop.

"This will help it all go down nicely," Yoon reassured his well-fed guests. Typically served at formal dinners, the dessert apparently functions as a digestive aid.

The day was hot, and glasses of chilled barley tea were welcome. At Korean markets, the roasted barley is sold in packets like ordinary tea bags.

Yoon also poured wines that he felt would stand up to vibrant flavors. "I didn't want to use sake or soju [a Korean brandy distilled from sweet potatoes] because they are higher in alcohol," he says. He had selected the 1997 Paolo Caccese Traminer Aromatico, which is a dry, spicy Italian Gewurztraminer, and two roses, the 1997 Regaleali Rosato from Italy, and, from California's Central Coast, the 1998 Jory "La Nina Cienega Valley" Dry Pink Wine.

Yoon had eliminated some of his favorite Korean dishes from the menu because they are more suitable to winter. One is the short rib soup, galbi tang. "It's unbelievable," he says. He describes bibim naengmyun, cold buckwheat noodles mixed with chiles and pickles with similar enthusiasm: It's "to die for," he says. "I love Japanese soba, but this is the 10th power in terms of flavor."

The fusion touches at Michael's have mostly used the more familiar Japanese flavors, not Korean, but this may change; owner Michael McCarty is now asking Yoon to cook Korean food for him. "He loves all kinds of food. He's a great inspiration," the young chef says.

Yoon feels that the public at large is ready to take up Korean food too. "Korean barbecue is really taking off," he says. "It'll have its time. It's getting there."

Yoon will teach "The Art of Asian Fusion" Sept. 27 at Sur La Table in Santa Monica, 301 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 395-0390, and Oct. 4 at the Newport Beach Sur La Table, 832 Avocado Ave. (949) 640-0200. Both classes begin at 6:30 p.m. The price is $45. Advance reservations are required and can be made by calling either store.

Barbecued Rib Eye (Bulgogi)

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time and 3 hours marinating time

Purchase thinly sliced beef rib-eye at a Korean market. Sang Yoon suggests cooking the beef using a bulgogi. If you don't have one, use a stovetop grill pan.

MARINADE

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup mirin (sweet rice wine)

1/4 cup sake

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

1 Asian pear, peeled and grated

3 tablespoons chopped garlic

3 green onions, chopped

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, grated

1/2 teaspoon pepper

* Combine soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, pear, garlic, onions, ginger root and pepper and chill 2 hours.

BEEF 2 pounds thinly sliced beef rib eye

* Add meat to marinade, cover and refrigerate 3 to 4 hours.

* Drain meat, discarding marinade. Place beef on bulgogi grill pan set over hot coals or on bulgogi grill pan for stove set over medium-high heat. Cook until meat is browned on both sides and cooked through, 3 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness of slices. 4 servings. Each serving: 386 calories; 658 mg sodium; 100 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 36 grams protein; 0.79 gram fiber.

Steamed Korean Dumplings in Mushroom Broth

Active Work Time: 1 hour 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours 10 minutes plus 12 to 18 hours chilling time

MUSHROOM BROTH

3 quarts water

1 pound beef brisket

1/2 pound daikon, cubed

6 cloves garlic

1/2 onion, sliced

1/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms

* Place water, brisket, daikon, garlic and onion in Dutch oven. Cover and simmer over low heat 1 hour.

* Add shiitake and simmer 20 minutes. Strain broth into bowl, slicing some mushrooms for optional garnish and discarding solids (brisket may be saved for another use.) Cool broth to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

EGG PANCAKE

Oil

2 eggs

1 tablespoon water

* Grease skillet lightly with oil. Beat eggs with water. Pour into skillet in thin layer. Cook until set. Turn and cook top briefly. remove and cool. Cut in thirds, shred crosswise and reserve.

DUMPLINGS

1/2 pound ground beef (15% to 20% fat)

1/4 pound ground pork

1/2 cup firm tofu, crumbled

10 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (1-inch) piece ginger root, grated

2 bunches green onions, chopped

1 1/2 brown onions, chopped

2 eggs

1/4 head nappa cabbage, chopped

Sea salt

1 (12-ounce) package square won ton wrappers

Warm water

Mushroom Broth

Green onion tops, sliced

* Combine beef, pork, tofu, garlic, ginger root, green onions, brown onions and eggs in large bowl.

* In separate bowl, mix cabbage with 3/4 cup sea salt. Cover and let stand 20 minutes.

* Place cabbage in colander and rinse under cold running water to remove salt. With hands, squeeze moisture from cabbage; cabbage should be as dry as possible. Add cabbage to meat mixture and stir well. Season with 1 tablespoon salt.

* Moisten inside of won ton wrapper with warm water. Place about 1 teaspoon filling in center of wrapper. Fold 2 opposite points to meet at center. Fold remaining points toward center and wrap around sealed points to enclose filling completely. Repeat with remaining wrappers.

* Line steamer rack with cheesecloth to prevent dumplings from sticking. Place dumplings on rack and steam over simmering water 10 minutes.

* As dumplings steam, skim fat from broth. Heat, adding salt to taste just before serving.

* To serve, place 4 to 5 dumplings in individual bowls, add 1 cup broth and garnish with reserved mushrooms, Egg Pancake and green onions.

10 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings: 283 calories; 960 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 0.51 gram fiber.

Bean and Chile Sauce

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Use a light-colored soybean paste that contains no additional seasonings, available at Korean markets. Serve as condiment with Bulgogi.

3 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons Korean hot chile paste (gochujang)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup beef broth

1/2 cup Korean soybean paste

1/2 cup Japanese white miso

2 tablespoons mirin

1/4 brown onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 bunches green onions, finely chopped

* Heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil in medium non-stick skillet. Add chile paste and saute over medium-high heat, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in sugar. Gradually stir in beef broth to thin mixture while sauteing. Remove from heat and cool. (Consistency will be like thin cooked cereal.)

* Combine soybean paste, miso and mirin in bowl.

* Heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil in nonstick skillet and add brown and green onions. Saute 1 minute. Add chile paste mixture and bean paste mixture. Saute 5 minutes while adding 1 tablespoon sesame oil to thin. Transfer to bowl and cover tightly with foil.

* Heat 1 inch water in saucepan large enough to hold bowl or stockpot with steamer insert. Place covered bowl inside pot and steam, covered, 10 minutes. Remove and cool.

1 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon: 34 calories; 233 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.41 gram fiber.

Summer Kimchi

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 3 to 4 days standing time

"The cooler the temperature, the longer it will take to ferment," says Sang Yoon of this relish. "During the summer months, 36 hours should suffice." Korean salted shrimp is available in jars in the refrigerated section of Korean markets.

6 cups water

3 1/2 ounces Korean salted shrimp

1/4 brown onion, chopped

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, chopped

1/2 cup hot Korean ground red pepper

1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar

1/2 small daikon

1 head nappa cabbage

1 Asian pear

1 bunch green onions

1/2 bunch Asian watercress (minari)

* Bring water to boil. Add shrimp, onion and ginger and boil 35 minutes. Strain liquid through cheesecloth or coffee filter into bowl and squeeze shrimp to extract juices. Discard solids.

* Place ground red pepper in piece of cheesecloth or coffee filter and tie with string to form small pouch. Add pouch to hot shrimp liquid and steep 30 minutes, until liquid is lightly colored by pepper. Squeeze pouch well into liquid, then discard. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Set liquid aside to cool.

* Cut daikon in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into thin slices. Cut cabbage head in half lengthwise. Discard outer leaves. Cut inner leaves into 2-inch pieces. Core pear and thinly slice. Slice onions into 2-inch sections. Remove thick stems from watercress and coarsely chop. Combine daikon, pear, onions, watercress and cabbage in large mixing bowl and toss to mix.

* Divide vegetable mixture between 2 (1-quart) Mason jars. Jars will be about 3/4 full. Fill with cooled shrimp liquid to cover vegetables and seal. Keep in cool area 36 to 48 hours. Do not refrigerate. Taste at end of fermentation time. Kimchi should have slightly sour flavor. If not, reseal and ferment longer.

2 quarts. Each 1/4-cup: 12 calories; 27 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 0 fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.50 gram fiber.

Spiced Dried Persimmon Soup with Pine Nuts (Su Jung Gwa)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour plus 5 hours chilling time

"This can be made the night before," Yoon says." Add more honey if you like it sweeter."

2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed

2 quarts water

1 (2-inch) piece ginger root, coarsely chopped

2 sticks cinnamon or 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

3 dried persimmons

2 tablespoons orange blossom honey

1/4 cup pine nuts

* In large pan, bring brown sugar and water to boil. Add ginger, reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes.

* Add cinnamon, persimmons and honey. Simmer until persimmons are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool at room temperature 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

* Remove cinnamon sticks from soup and discard. Use slotted spoon to lift persimmons from soup; cut into small pieces.

* To serve, place several persimmon pieces in small bowls, pour in soup and sprinkle with pine nuts.

8 (1-cup) servings. Each serving: 86 calories; 2 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.51 gram fiber.

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Sources

Here are some Korean markets where you can find some of the more specialized ingredients for these recipes.

* California Markets, 450 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 382-9444; and 8911 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 537-1480.

* Han Kook Supermarkets, 124 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 469-8934; 15000 S. Crenshaw Blvd., Gardena, (310) 324-2222; 18317 E. Colima Road, Rowland Heights, (626) 913-7796; and 8911 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 537-1480.

* Han Nam Chain Supermarket, 2740 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 382-2922.

* Korean Market, 7112 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 780-0555.

* Plaza Market, 928 S. Western Ave., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (213) 385-1100.

*

On the cover the antique teapot and wooden shutter from J. Tamad Imports, L.A. Mart, Los Angeles.

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