Thanks to its being grown so many places, pepper is no longer out of reach of all but the rich. It has become one of the necessities of cooking and appears in the recipe for almost every savory dish. But there are a few dishes in which pepper is more than just a back note.
Many countries have classic dishes that combine pepper and beef—because it’s a great flavor combination. I first had bistecca alla fiorentina—steak Florentine—in a small restaurant in Florence when I was 15 and still traveling with my parents. This consists simply of grilling a thin steak and then, just after pulling it off the grill, squeezing lemon juice over it and sprinkling it generously with freshly ground black pepper. That’s it. But there are great beef and pepper combos worldwide.
France’s steak au poivre is, in my opinion, the king of pepper and beef dishes. I first had this in the historic district of Montreal, decades ago. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not that hard to make, and it has, since that time, become a favorite dish to serve to guests or simply to reward myself for making it through another week.
You’ll note that I don’t flame my version of this dish. I’m happy to report that Julia Child agreed with me, writing that flaming is not all that beneficial to the taste of the dish (the extra hit of alcohol needed for a flambé kind of overwhelms other flavors). I’d add to her reasoning that it is also one more thing that makes it seem like it’s too much trouble to prepare, and it would be a pity if pyrotechnics kept anyone from enjoying this on a regular basis.
Steak au Poivre
French Pepper Steak
2 Tbs. mixed whole peppercorns (black, green, white; or, easier still, use a commercial mix that includes these three and pink “peppercorns”)
1 to 1-1/4 lb. steak (strip, sirloin), nicely marbled, about 1-1/2 inches thick, or 2 steaks of about 8 to 10 ounces each
1 tsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbs. butter, divided
2 Tbs. minced shallots
1/4 cup cognac
1/2 cup beef stock or broth
Crush the peppercorns (do not grind) in a mortar with a pestle, in a bowl with a heavy object, such as a wine bottle, or in a plastic bag, using a heavy skillet. A hammer would work, too. Remember, however, that the idea is to have crushed peppercorns, not powdered ones. Most peppercorns should range from 1/4 to 1/8 their original size.
Trim the steak of excess fat. Sprinkle salt on both sides, and then press the crushed peppercorns into both sides. Heat the oil and 1 Tbs. butter in a heavy sauté or frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, put the steak in. Sear well on each side (about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes for side one, about 1 minute for side two). Reduce heat to medium and cook steak to desired degree of doneness. Remove steak to a warm platter.
Add the shallots to the pan. Sauté until transparent and beginning to color, stirring frequently to scrape up the drippings. Turn your face away from the pan as you pour in the cognac (to avoid the hot cloud of alcohol steam, as well as possible spatters). Stir to combine with shallots and drippings. Bring to a boil and let cook for a minute or two to evaporate the alcohol. Add the stock or broth and return to a boil. Boil for a minute or two, to reduce stock and thicken the sauce. Add 1 Tbs. of butter, stirring to incorporate it into the sauce. Pour sauce over the steak and serve. Serves 2.
Notes: You can cut a larger steak into individual portions, if you wish. My preference is to keep a larger steak whole, and then to slice it for serving, drizzling the sauce over the lovely, pink slices. However, this really only works if everyone likes their steak cooked the same way. If you have a range of degrees of cookedness being asked of you, then individual portions are definitely the way to go.
As for the mix of peppers: If you are using ordinary, no-name black pepper that has been sitting in a can on the grocer’s shelf for an indeterminate amount of time, it would probably be bland enough for you to survive 2 Tbs. of black pepper alone. However, if (as I hope you will) you get good, fresh Indian black pepper, such as Malabar or Tellicherry, it could be overwhelming, as these are hotter and more flavorful than the most widely available grocery-store pepper. Hence, for a balance of flavor and heat, the mixture of peppercorns is ideal. And feel free to buy a pre-blended peppercorn mix—the Spice House has a great one, but so do other purveyors of spice.