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Sizzling, twice-spiced beef skewers add twist to Memorial Day barbeque

By CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street
Published: May 22, 2024, 6:04am

Based on the meaty skewers sold by street vendors in China, these twice-spiced beef skewers are served sizzling hot and richly flavored with cumin and chilies — a far more exciting Memorial Day dish than the usual hot dog or hamburger.

In this recipe from our cookbook “Milk Street 365: The All-Purpose Cookbook for Every Day of the Year,” a heady spice mixture goes onto the beef just before cooking, with more sprinkled on at the end. This creates layers of flavor you don’t get from skewers that are merely marinated and grilled.

Strips of beefy flat-iron steak are first combined with a mixture of sherry, soy sauce and oil to give them a deeply savory note. Keeping the meat in strips rather than cubes increases the surface area available for browning while ensuring it cooks quickly and evenly.

While the meat is seasoned, the cumin, fennel and tingly Sichuan peppercorns are toasted until fragrant, then coarsely ground and combined with salt. A portion of the mixture is set aside, and the remainder is sprinkled over both sides of the meat and patted gently onto the surface to help it adhere.

The skewers then are grilled hot and fast over charcoal until charred on all sides, then finished with the reserved spice mixture and drizzled with chili oil for a bit of heat.

To make lamb skewers instead of beef, called yang rou chuan, substitute boneless lamb shoulder or leg; be sure to slice the meat against the grain. Though these typically are enjoyed as a snack, if served with some steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables, the skewers make a satisfying dinner.

Spicy Chinese Beef Skewers (Niu Rou Chuan)

Start to finish: 45 minutes. Servings: 4

1½ pounds beef flat-iron steak, sliced against the grain into ¼-inch-thick strips

1 tablespoon dry sherry or Shaoxing wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil, plus more for grill grate

2½ tablespoons cumin seeds

2½ teaspoons fennel seeds

1½ teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

Kosher salt

Chili oil, to serve (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine the beef, sherry, soy sauce and oil. Let stand at room temperature while preparing the spice mix and the grill.

In a small skillet over medium-low, toast the cumin, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and add the pepper flakes. Process until coarsely ground, about 10 seconds. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Measure out 1 tablespoon of the mix and set aside to use as garnish.

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for direct, high-heat cooking. For a charcoal grill, ignite a large chimney of coals and let burn until lightly ashed over, then distribute the coals evenly over one side of the grill bed; open the bottom grill vents and the lid vent. For a gas grill, turn all burners to high. Heat the grill, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, then clean and oil the cooking grate.

While the grill heats, thread the beef onto ten 8- to 10-inch metal skewers, evenly dividing the meat and pushing the pieces together. Sprinkle the spice mixture evenly over both sides of the meat, patting gently to adhere.

Grill until lightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and grill until the second sides are lightly charred, another 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle both sides of the skewers with the reserved spice mix, then drizzle with chili oil (if using).