Hot dogs and hamburgers are fine, grilled vegetables are terrific and steak is great. But every once in a while, it's fun to get out of the standard summer culinary routine.
So we gave ourselves an assignment: We would visit an ethnic food shop where many of the items were unfamiliar, wander around and look at the wares and come up with an idea for a satisfying but unique meal.
And that's how we discovered Kalbi -- Korean short ribs, marinated and cooked on a grill (indoors or outdoors, over charcoal), packaged into a lettuce leaf with rice and vegetables and dipped into a spicy sauce made from red bean paste. It's the perfect entree when the weather is steamy, because the cool lettuce and bland rice contrast with the piquant meat and spicy dip.
No wonder it's such a popular choice for Korean picnics and parties.
Sang S. Choi, who with his wife, Calina, owns Sung's Oriental Grocery and Gift Market at 850 Niagara Falls Blvd., cooks hundreds of pounds in the summer.
You can eat Kalbi at any of the five Korean restaurants in Western New York if you want to, but Calina Choi helpfully set up an electric grill right in the store to show me how to do it at home.
The secret of Kalbi is the meat itself. The ribs are cut differently from the short ribs most of us are used to. The more common ribs are cut in thick pieces, well suited for braising, wonderful in soup.
But Kalbi is meant for quick cooking. Think strips of beef cut across the bone from the chuck end of the short ribs. Three tiny rib bones cross the top of the meat. Because the strips are so thin (no more than a quarter of an inch thick) they can be cooked quickly. Sung's and other Asian food stores sell frozen Korean short ribs.
The meat, however, is not an essentially tender cut, so it should be marinated first.
Once you've got the meat, the rest of the preparation is falling-off-a-log easy. You can even buy the marinade in a jar. (You can also make your own marinade, as in the recipe below, adapted from the Internet.)
At the same time you cook the meat on the grill, you can cook onion rings or garlic cloves, mushrooms or peppers next to it, to be served with the meat.
You can also buy the spicy sauce for dipping the lettuce package -- it's made from red bean paste. Or substitute Sriracha Sauce (a sort of Thai chili sauce), available in most supermarkets
If serving an authentic Korean meal is your goal, you don't want to ignore kimchi. Kimchi, an acquired taste for most Americans, is the universal Korean side dish or condiment, usually made from pickled cabbage or turnips. It is also very, very spicy. Be warned.
At Sung's, the kimchi is homemade every week by Choi's mother-in-law and comes in two varieties -- one is made from baby bok choi.
You can accompany your meal with vegetables -- and quite an assortment is available. There's a small, sweet -- not hot -- chili that is skinny and almost looks like okra; there's a globular radish; there's a beautiful leaf called gam mic with a cilantro flavor.
And there's a globular squash which Calina calls Korean zucchini -- it's sometimes found at local farmers markets. You can make a sort of pancake or fritter with it. Asian stores even sell the pancake mix to help you -- or you can use seasoned flour.
Dessert for this meal can be an easy one. Fresh fruit is a good idea. And the beverage? Beer, perhaps, or the kind of tea Korean people favor. It's made from grain, usually roasted barley or corn.
1 1/2 cups soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
8 to 10 cloves garlic, crushed
6 large green onions, roughly crushed
4 pounds Korean style short ribs
Toasted sesame seeds, lettuce, rice, peppers, mushrooms, onion rings
Combine the soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and vegetable oil in a large bowl. Add garlic and green onion; mix. Place meat in a large sealable plastic bag or refrigerator container. Pour marinade into the container, making sure that meat is covered. Refrigerate at least four hours, stirring or turning the bag from time to time. .
Heat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Drain excess marinade and grill the short ribs to medium doneness. Cut the meat into large pieces.
To serve, open a lettuce leaf, add a layer of rice and your choice of peppers, mushrooms and onion rings. Place the meat atop everything and roll up the lettuce leaf to make a tidy package. Dip into spicy dip and eat. Makes about 6 servings.
Zucchini (Korean or standard)
1 egg, beaten lightly
Pancake mix or seasoned flour
Wash zucchini and cut into half-inch slices. Dip slices lightly in pancake mix, then into egg and back into pancake mix. Fry in vegetable oil and serve immediately.