Holidays and special occasions are a great time to present dishes that are a little more special than your average, everyday home meal. It’s also an excellent time to splurge on fancier ingredients and put forth a little extra effort in preparation.
Unfortunately, there’s also the danger of getting carried away when dreaming up all the wonderful foods you want to serve for a special occasion. If you neglect to think the execution all the way through, your dishes can wind up taking more time, energy, and effort than you’d planned on. Before you know it, you’re slaving away on a lavish, complex feast instead of enjoying yourself—and that’s not what a good meal should be about.
But a fancy meal doesn’t always have to be difficult or time-consuming to prepare. In fact, some of the most time-honored, special occasion dishes are so simple that it’s almost laughable. Steak au poivre is one them. Though it may sound swanky and difficult to prepare, it’s actually quite simple. And if you’ve never had it, this holiday season is a great time to try it out.
The literal translation of “steak au poivre” is pepper steak. (I know, it sounds way less posh in English, right?) This classical French dish originated in the bistros of Normandy in the 19th century, and its reputation for being an elegant and easy entrée lives on.
In essence, it’s a humble seared steak with a speedy pan sauce, though it’s elevated with ingredients of the utmost excellence, somewhat offsetting the simplicity. Because it’s so uncomplicated, this is the time to splurge on the finest ingredients you can find within your budget: a high-quality cut of meat from a reputable source and maybe some of those exotic peppercorns you’ve seen at the store but haven’t known where or how to use them.
Traditionally, steak au poivre is prepared with filet steak, cut from the tenderloin, but any flavorful, tender steak of your liking would do. If tenderloin isn’t within reach, I’d suggest strip loin next. Since peppercorns are the dominant theme here, a nice blend of pink, green, Szechuan, and other exotic peppercorns would be very welcome. The cognac creates an added depth of flavor, though it’s not absolutely integral and you may skip it if you like. If you want to stay conventional and use the cognac, be aware that you’ll flambee it (in other words, set on fire…whee!). The flame will consume any alcohol present, leaving only the flavor profile of the brandy, and making the sauce safe for children or anyone who can’t have alcohol.
Serve with mashed or roasted potatoes and a simple sautéed vegetable for a classic bistro-style meal that’s sure to impress your guests and keep you free to schmooze.
Cheers to a holiday meal that’s as sophisticated as it is stress-free!
Steak au Poivre
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20–30 minutes
Notes: flambee safely. If you have a gas stove, take your pan off the flame before adding any alcohol. If you have an electric cooktop, make sure your pan is really hot and use a long match or grill lighter. And be certain that you stand back and keep your eyebrows out of the way!
2 tablespoons whole peppercorns (black, green, pink, Tellicherry, Malabar, Szechuan, white, or a mixture)
4 (8–10 oz.) steaks of your choice (tenderloin, strip loin, rib eye, sirloin, etc.), cut ¾- to 1-inch thick
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon beef tallow or other high-heat cooking fat
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup finely diced shallot (about 1 large shallot)
¼ cup cognac or other brandy
1 cup beef broth
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Preheat oven to 200°F. Crack the peppercorns coarsely and set aside. Pat steaks dry and season with salt and about a third of the pepper, making sure to press into each side of steak.
- Heat a large, heavy pan such as cast iron on the stovetop until very hot. Add beef tallow or other fat. Sear steaks over medium heat until deeply browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, flip over and sear the other side, covering with a lid to help cook to desired doneness, about 5–7 minutes longer for medium-rare. Transfer steaks to a plate and place in warmed oven.
- Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add butter, shallot, and remining pepper to pan. Sauté over medium heat until shallot is lightly caramelized. Pull pan from heat and add cognac.
- Flambee the steak: if using gas stove, carefully ignite brandy by gently tilting the pan towards the stove flame. If using an electric stove, use a long lighter. (See notes above. Be cautious and keep your face and all flammable items away from the oven. Do not hover over the pan when lighting—most people want their eyebrows for Christmas!) Allow alcohol to burn until flame goes out naturally, meaning no alcohol remains.
- Add beef broth to pan. Bring to a boil and keep boiling until reduced by ¾. Add cream and reduce another couple minutes, until mixture coats the back of a spoon. Add Dijon and whisk through. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Remove rested steaks from the oven and slice thickly. (Alternately, you may leave it whole, though the presentation won’t be quite as pretty.) Arrange among serving plates and spoon sauce over steak.
Image from Briana Goodall.