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Steak au Poivre

We're all trying to be better these days about what we eat. Or if we're not trying, our better selves are thinking about it, or we at least know what we should be doing. One of the blessings and curses of the Information Age is that it's harder to be ignorant about things like that.

We're eating less red meat and buying organic blueberries and avoiding gluten and sugar; we know what odd-sounding words like "spirulina" and "probiotics" mean; we've at least read about juice cleanses and the paleo diet. And frankly, most of the time I'm incredibly happy eating a produce-rich diet.

I love plain yogurt with live cultures. Give me a clamshell of raspberries and I'm a happy, happy girl. But sometimes, you have to cut loose. And I don't mean a snack pack of M&Ms. Sometimes nothing but a good steak will fit the bill.

Steak is an ineffably classy food. It's a special-occasion food. When I was a kid, it didn't seem so special. We ate it fairly often, the steaks were of okay to poor quality, and they were always cooked until well done. But since we're all grown-ups here, let's talk about the grown-up way to cook a steak.

Buy good steaks and eat them less often. Don't turn steak into a food group. The fastest road to taking something for granted is overconsumption. Steaks taste way better when you eat them less often and buy higher quality meat. Treat it as the very special and occasion-worthy food that it is.

Cook it simply. There's no need for complicated marinades and elaborate sauces. A good steak will taste amazing with just salt and pepper, and a pan sauce made with steak drippings is the perfect accompaniment.

You don't have to grill steak. In fact, the best steaks I've had were cooked in a skillet. You can get a nice sear on a steak in a skillet, and then you'll have the pan drippings to work with rather than losing them to an open flame.

Cook steak so that it is pink in the middle. That means rare or medium rare--medium at the most. A well-done steak is a dead steak. I know that some of you will balk at this, and that is okay. But I promise you that if you cook a steak properly--with some char on the outside but still pink in the middle--it will be more flavorful and much juicier than a burnt steak.

Steak au poivre is quite possibly one of the best things that ever happened to steak. It is one of the many gifts that the French have given to cuisine. A beautiful piece of meat encrusted with cracked peppercorns and seared to perfection? Okay. You win, France.

And steak au poivre is easy. I won't say it's easy as pie because it's easier than pie. We use any cut from the sirloin, tenderloin, or top sirloin, no more than 8 ounces per steak. This is one instance where we actually will use filet mignon, which we usually eschew in favor of steaks with more fat (fat=flavor when it comes to steak).

Finally, a good rule of thumb for cooking steaks is 4 minutes per side in a very hot skillet. This will give you a steak with a nice crust on the outside but still pink in the center. There are all sorts of tests for figuring out when a steak is done, none of which I am any good at. I find it much more useful to just set a timer and go from there.

We like to serve steak with potatoes. It's a cliché, but potatoes are a really great foil for bloody, rich steak. And if those potatoes happen to be crusty? All the better. We've included our simplified recipe for Pommes Anna below. We paired this with a bold Rombauer Cabernet, which accents the flavor of the warming black peppercorns and provides a fruity contrast to this rich dish. 

Other articles you might enjoy: Beef Braciole, Borscht With Meat, Venison Black Bean Chili

Steak au Poivre
Serves 2

Pat dry:
            Two 8-ounce steaks (sirloin, top sirloin, or tenderloin)
If you have time, let the steaks sit, uncovered, on a rack over a baking sheet in the refrigerator for a day or two. This will thoroughly dry out the surface of the steak and concentrate the flavor.
Press into the steaks, working the seasonings into both sides of the meat with the heel of your palm or the flat side of a cleaver:
           1/4 cup cracked black peppercorns
            1 tablespoon kosher salt
Heat a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over high heat. Once the pan is hot, sear the steaks, without crowding, for 4 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Cook each side 1 minute more for medium. Remove the steaks to a platter and let stand, loosely covered with foil. Pour off any excess fat from the pan and set the pan over medium-high heat. Add:
            1/4 cup chopped shallots or onion
Cook, stirring, just until barely softened, about 15 seconds. Remove pan from heat and carefully add:
            1/4 cup brandy
If the brandy flames, let it burn itself out. Return pan to heat and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. Add:
            1 cup beef stock or veal stock or broth
Boil until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add:
            1/4 cup heavy cream
Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Add:
           2 tablespoons chopped parsley
            Salt and cracked black peppercorns to taste
Serve immediately over or alongside the steaks.


Pommes Anna

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 425°F. Have ready:
            1 cup (2 sticks) butter, clarified, or 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) melted butter
Pour the butter into a bowl and toss with:
           2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
           Salt and black pepper to taste
Set a 10-inch cast iron skillet over low heat and layer the potatoes in the skillet. Build the bottom layer carefully with overlapping, nicely shaped slices.
When all the potatoes are layered in the pan and the bottom has formed a light crust, lightly butter or oil a skillet slightly smaller than the pan and press it firmly on top of the potatoes to compress them. Cover the pan tightly with foil, or cap with the Pommes Anna pot lid.
Put the pan in the oven over a baking sheet to catch drips. Bake for 20 minutes, remove the cover, and press down firmly on the potatoes again. Bake, uncovered, until the sides are visibly browned and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes more.
Holding the skillet or lid firmly against the potatoes, tilt the pan and pour off any melted butter that has not been absorbed. To serve, loosen edges from the pan with a knife, then invert the potatoes onto a plate and slice into wedges.


Garcande's picture

I have made "steak au piovre" from this recipe many times and it never fails to impress the people you serve it to.
meg's picture

Excellent! I'm so happy to hear you love the recipe! Happy cooking.

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Note: Be sure to read my post on basic canning and preserving.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove...