Season well with salt and pepper: That's the first step in countless recipes. It is generally good advice, more so if the salt is the good flaky stuff and the pepper is freshly ground. For this simple steak au poivre recipe to be a success, both salt and pepper are needed, pressed generously against the meat. But the emphasis here is most assuredly upon the pepper.
Pepper provides far more than a pleasant hot sensation; there are hints of warm sweet spice that linger, and a fine woodsy aroma. Dishes like this one that make heavy use of black pepper achieve a kind of zingy roundness, which pairs well with red wine and seems to enhance other accompaniments.
At the spice store, be it bazaar or supermarket, you can usually choose between two piper nigrum types from South India, Tellicherry or Malabar. Both make a good all-purpose peppercorn, with bright fruity notes. Or try others from equally subtropical places like Brazil, Vietnam and Indonesia.
When whole peppercorns are crushed, their complex flavor components are released. Most hand-twisted pepper mills can't manage a very coarse grind, so use a mortar and pestle, a heavy rolling pin or an electric spice mill to obtain the coarsest texture possible. Some cooks use the underside of a cast-iron pan.
I like to combine coarsely crushed black peppercorns with some crushed Sichuan pepper for my steak au poivre. Sichuan pepper is not an actual pepper; it's from a different plant altogether, with rust-colored berries. Used extensively in China, it is slightly musky, spicy and aromatic, and can have a certain tingly (some say numbing) effect. If you can't procure the Sichuan, use only the black pepper and you'll still obtain good results.
You may have recollections of overwrought renditions of this bistro favorite, with tons of cream and brandy and pickled green peppercorns from a jar. My version is restrained, so it's neither overwhelmingly peppery nor boozy, and there's just a dab of creme fraiche in the sauce.
Steak au poivre is an easy way to impress guests any night of the week. The steaks are pan-fried, and a sauce is quickly made right in the pan. It takes 20 minutes at most. I use beef tenderloin, which is a little pricey, but the steaks are smallish at just 6 ounces. You could use any other cut you like. If you prefer, use small chicken breasts or tuna steaks instead. A bouquet of (also peppery) watercress is the traditional garnish. We had it with scallion mashed potatoes.
There's also a lighter outdoor version: Forget the sauce, grill the pepper steaks over coals and serve with a garlicky green salad or a few asparagus spears.
Simple Steak au Poivre
Time: 30 minutes
4 beef tenderloin steaks, 6 ounces each, cut 1 inch thick
1 tablespoon coarsely crushed black pepper
1 teaspoon coarsely crushed Sichuan pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, finely diced
1 1/2 cups rich beef or chicken broth
1 tablespoon cognac or bourbon
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 bunch watercress, for garnish
1. Put steaks in a shallow dish and season well on both sides with salt. Sprinkle black pepper and Sichuan pepper evenly over steaks. Press pepper into both sides with hands and leave for 10 minutes.
2. Put a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. When surface is nearly smoking, swirl 1 tablespoon butter in the pan and add steaks. Adjust heat as necessary to keep steaks sizzling briskly.
3. Cook for 2 minutes on first side; seared side should be nicely browned. Flip and cook for 2 minutes more. Transfer steaks to a warm platter.
4. Make the sauce: Add 1 tablespoon butter to the pan. Add shallots and saute for a minute or so, stirring, until they begin to brown. Add broth and bring to a brisk simmer. Add cognac and continue to simmer until reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in creme fraiche and cook until sauce is lightly thickened.
5. Return steaks to pan to warm, spooning sauce over them and turning once. Arrange steaks on platter or individual plates and top with more sauce. Garnish with bouquets of watercress and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings
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