All it takes is the smell of sesame oil for my husband to come wandering into the kitchen. Even a small amount can fill up the whole room, piercing and immediately recognizable, yet the smell is a round, mellow one, like a warm, booming laugh. “Something smells good,” Andrew will inevitably say, perking up with Pavlovian interest. “When do we eat?”
When something can rouse an appetite so powerfully all on its own, it needs very little else to become a good meal, and gireumjang, a sandy textured dipping sauce made from nothing more than sesame oil, salt, and black pepper, is proof positive of this. Nutty and toasty, punched up from the salt and warm from the black pepper, gireumjang is typically served with thin slices of barbecued pork belly, or samgyeopsal, but my mother-in-law also favors serving it with strips of sirloin steak. The latter, smoky from a quick sear in a good cast-iron pan, is my favorite.
- Season the steak generously with salt and pepper on both sides. If the steak is cold, let it rest until it comes close to room temperature, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- In a 10- or 12-inch cast-iron pan or other thick-bottomed skillet, heat a slick of vegetable oil over high until shimmering and very hot. Add the steak and let sizzle energetically for 2 to 3 minutes, until a nice brown crust forms on the bottom side. Flip and cook for an additional 1 to 3 minutes, until the steak reaches your desired doneness. An instant-read thermometer is tremendously useful for checking doneness—medium-rare will read between 130°F and 140°F, medium will read 140°F to 150°F, and medium-well 150°F to 155°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, just use a spatula to press lightly on the center of the steak. At medium-rare, the steak will feel like your cheek, mostly soft but with some structure; at medium, the steak will feel like the fleshy part of your chin, still soft but with more resistance; at medium-well, it will feel like your forehead between your brows, fairly firm.
- Remove the steak from the heat and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes to let the juices distribute. Meanwhile, make the gireumjang if you haven’t already. Slice the steak and serve with gireumjang drizzled over top or on the side as a dipping sauce.
- Mix together the salt and pepper in a small bowl. Stir in the sesame oil until incorporated. Enjoy, or refrigerate until needed. The sauce will keep for several weeks.
Reprinted from A Common Table. Copyright © 2018 Cynthia Chen McTernan. Published by Rodale, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography by Cynthia Chen McTernan.