Barbecue Beef Lettuce Wraps
It's kind of odd that barbecue is a summertime cuisine—is large amounts of hefty, fatty meat really what you're craving when it's scorching hot and humid outside? I think we only really say "yes" because of the years of tradition behind smoked and grilled meats, but I wondered, in a more pragmatic reality, if I wanted something grilled on an oppressively hot day, what would that be? At least one answer to that question ended up being these barbecue beef lettuce wraps, which deliver a ton of familiar summertime flavors in a more light and refreshing manner.
Starting off this concept, I really wanted to pack in the cookout flavors without anything being too heavy. Coleslaw seemed like a great choice to get in some extra tang and sweetness, so I whipped up a batch. I usually opt to use only the more tender green cabbage, but the extra crunch provided by red cabbage seemed appropriate here because it would add additional layers of texture when used in small quantities I was planning.
I employed my standard coleslaw procedure here—starting with adding salt and sugar to the veggies to draw out moisture. Then, after washing and drying the slaw mix, I added a vinegar based dressing that provided the sweet and tangy profile I was after.
For the meat, I decided to use this thinly sliced short rib I picked up at my local Asian market. I took a nod from Korean barbecue here, using paper thin, fatty beef, which grills up quickly with both a ton of flavor and juiciness.
Now I don't think I've ever advocated for barbecue sauce as a marinade—the high sugar content means it'll burn quickly, so applications at the end of cooking are most appropriate—but the equation was a bit different in this instance. I knew that super thinly sliced meat would cook up in a matter of minutes, and it also only takes minutes for a barbecue sauce to caramelize, so in this one very specific recipe, it seemed right to apply the sauce before grilling.
After coating the meat in the sauce and firing up the grill, I first grilled up a couple ears of corn. In trying to capture a lot flavors of summer in one small wrap, corn seemed like an apt choice not only to deliver a taste that's so ingrained with the season, but also add a different type of sweetness, which I though would be welcomed when paired with the tart coleslaw.
Once the corn was done and cooling off on a cutting board, I transferred the sauce-soaked beef to the grill. This stuff grilled up so quickly that it was probably cooked through within a minute, but knowing there was a lot of fat gave me confidence to keep it grilling until it developed the ideal characteristics I was after—mainly browning of the meat and caramelization of the sauce, which took two to three minutes total.
I then transferred the beef to the cutting board with the corn, which was now just cool enough to handle and cut the kernels from the cob.
Then I went into wrap assembly mode, starting each one with a piece of bibb lettuce that I had previously washed and dried. I then topped each leaf with some of the grilled beef, followed by a spoonful of coleslaw, some kernels of corn, a little extra barbecue sauce, and a sprinkling of sliced scallions.
I won't lie and say these will replace cravings for barbecue chicken or smoked pork, but they certainly captured an essence of the summertime cookout without all the weight that inevitably leads to a meat coma. The beef was the primary delivery vehicle for barbecue flavor with its heartiness mixed with a sweet, tangy, and spicy sauce. The slaw provided the crunch I was after with an added boost of tartness that was balanced by the sweet corn and little extra sweet sauce. Then the lettuce and scallions provided the freshness which made all of these usually heavy flavors taste lighter and more refreshing. The wraps were certainly technically more fitting for those hot, dog days of summer, but are they what you'd really want though? I guess you'll just have to try them out and judge for yourself!
Barbecue Beef Lettuce Wraps
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 25 Minutes
- Cook 5 Minutes
- Total 30 Minutes
- For the Coleslaw
- 1/2 large head red cabbage, finely shredded on a mandoline or by hand
- 3/4 cup red onion, finely minced (about 1/2 medium onion)
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the Wraps
- 1 ear corn, shucked
- 1 1/4 pounds thinly sliced beef, like ribeye, short rib, or bulgogi
- 2/3 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce, plus more for serving
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup finely sliced fresh scallions
- 1 large head Bibb lettuce, leaves separated and washed
- To Make the Slaw: Combine cabbage, onion, and carrot in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and 1/4 cup sugar and toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Transfer to a large colander and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Transfer vegetables to a salad spinner and spin dry. Alternatively, transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet lined with a triple layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and blot mixture dry with more towels. Return to large bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, celery seed, and pepper. Pour dressing over vegetables and toss to coat. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and/or sugar. Set aside.
- Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals evenly across charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Place corn on grill and cook, turning occasionally, until tender and charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer corn to a cutting board and let rest until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Cut kernels from cob.
- Place steak in a medium bowl. Add barbecue sauce and salt; toss to thoroughly coat. Transfer steak to grill and cook until browned and lightly charred all over, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to cutting board.
- Place slices of steak in each lettuce leaf and top with coleslaw, corn, scallions, and extra barbecue sauce to taste.